What Is Religion?


Religion is a human phenomenon that can be defined in many different ways. A common definition is a system of beliefs and practices that give people something sacred to believe in, someone or something to be worshipped, and a code of conduct to follow. Most religions deal with the supernatural and spiritual, about forces and powers beyond human control.

Anthropologists have argued that religion developed out of the need to explain uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as weather and the success or failure of hunting. Early religions tried to control these uncontrollable parts of the environment through magic and supplication, by asking for help from gods or spirits. The development of religion helped humans feel more confident about their abilities to survive.

Religious life comes in many forms, from organized communities that take on active roles in the world, to those whose primary apostolate is contemplative prayer. Regardless of the nature of a particular religion, most people in the world participate in some form of it.

There is also much debate about how one defines religion. Some scholars have pushed for a monothetic definition, such as Edward Tylor’s minimal definition that religion is belief in spiritual beings. Others, such as Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have offered functional definitions of religion, based on the role it plays in a person’s life. The problem with these monothetic approaches is that they can lead to a sharp focus on the hidden, subjective mental states supposedly at the root of religious phenomena.