What Is Religion?


Religion consists of people’s relations to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It also commonly includes a concern with the fate of humans after death, whether in a literal sense as in heaven or hell or a more symbolic sense as in reaching an end to suffering such as nirvana. It often includes a belief system, practices, and a social organization as well as rituals and prayers, scriptures, holy places, symbols, a clergy or priesthood, and a calendar of sacred events.

There are many theories about why and how religion arose. One theory is that it grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and out of fear of forces beyond control. Humans needed hope for survival after death, for a kind creator who would watch over them, and for an ultimate purpose to life.

In the twentieth century, scholars began to drop the substantive element of religion in favor of a functional definition, defined as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community. This approach has some disadvantages. For example, it excludes religious forms of life that do not involve belief in any unusual reality and arguably underplays the role of hidden mental states. But it has its own strengths, as exemplified by the work of Emile Durkheim. Moreover, some scholars object that to define religion in terms of institutions and disciplinary practices is a Protestant bias and that it focuses too much on visible structures rather than the invisible social dynamics that produce them.