What Is Religion?


Studying Religion provides students with a well-rounded education. It allows them to better understand people of other cultures and develop a broader perspective on world events. It also inspires the critical thinking skills that are needed in our increasingly interconnected society.

In its most straightforward sense, religion is a belief in a deity or gods and an adherence to certain practices. In its most broad sense, it encompasses a wide range of activities, from prayer and sacrifice to morality and community service. Some scholars have tried to provide a tight definition, but others have argued that it is impossible to define what religion is because different religions take fundamentally different approaches to truth, Scripture, behavior, and reason.

A few scholars have developed formal strategies to clarify the meaning of religion, using the language of other disciplines. Anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and religious studies have all contributed to the debate on what is and is not a religion. The formal approach often looks for a structural pattern that resembles known cases. Zeldin points to the narrative structure of the “fall from and return to an ideal state.” Lemert and Blasi use the concept of related discontinuity between an empirical and a superempirical order to describe religion.

Other scholars, such as William James, have used a functional approach to define religion. They argue that a social practice can be considered a religion only if it is characterized by a distinctive role in human life. This is a view that has been supported by Emile Durkheim, who defines religion as whatever system of practices unites a group of persons into a single moral community (whether or not they believe in any unusual realities).