What Is Religion?


Religion is the unified system of beliefs, feelings, and practices that believers or worshippers have in common. It includes their relationships to and concerns about what people consider holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence, whether it is gods, spirits, or natural forces. It also involves their codes of moral conduct, their approach to certain writings, texts, or persons, and their rituals, practices, and celebrations.

It is most often taken as a genus of social formations whose paradigmatic members are the so-called world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. But it may be useful to think of religion as a more general concept, one that encompasses all human societies and cultures in the way that some other concepts, such as politics or music, do.

Many scholars take the view that a religious belief is an attitude or feeling that people have about their lives, their place in the universe, and their relationship with uncontrollable forces, and that these attitudes are the reason why some experiences and phenomena are called religions. Others, however, argue that the word religion is used as a label for a variety of different phenomena and that it does not necessarily have to involve a particular attitude or feeling.

The distinction between these two views is important for our understanding of what religion is, as is the distinction between a substantive definition and a functional definition of religion. Substantive definitions of religion, which are based on the classical assumption that a concept has a single defining property, are often criticized as ethnocentric. Over the past several decades, scholars have increasingly favored polythetic approaches to the category of religion.