What is Religion?


Religion is the belief in and participation in a group of beliefs, values, and practices that guide people in their lives. These can include worship, moral conduct, right belief and participation in religious institutions.

The term religion has been used for the whole range of social practices that generate or support a sense of community, provide an orientation in life, and even to explain certain phenomena, such as magic and art. Some scholars have embraced this view of religion as a social genus, while others have criticized it for its tendency to exclude other phenomena.

One of the main challenges to studying religion is evoking the inner sentiments of a community, especially when the community is made up of people who have different beliefs and stories. This requires a balance between a hermeneutic approach, which tends to focus on texts and on the meanings that they evoke, and an anthropological or disciplinary approach, which pays more attention to social structures and to observable practices.

A more sophisticated approach, as advocated by Alston, uses a polythetic model of religion that combines aspects of the three dimensions. Using the polythetic approach, one can find patterns within and among the members of any social class that may lead to explanatory theories.

As a result, it is more common today to think of religion as a taxon for sets of social practices. These can be either paradigmatic examples, such as the “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Daoism, or other non-experimental social formations that have not been given a name. Moreover, the polythetic concept can be applied to other social formations such as ritual, music, and dance.