What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that deal with the spirit or soul. It often deals with salvation, either in a literal sense as in going to heaven after death (Christianity) or in a more symbolic way as in achieving peace and contentment (Buddhism). Religious practices include rites or rituals, sacred texts, a community that gathers for worship, a leader or clergy who administers the religion, and places, symbols, and days that are considered holy. Like other social institutions, religions change over time and across cultures. But unlike some, such as capitalism, they change more slowly and retain older features while adding new ones.

In the 19th century, scholars began to study religion more seriously. They started to look at it from many different perspectives, including sociology, history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and economics. They divided into two schools of thought: monothetic and polythetic. Monothetic people, such as sociologist Emil Lincoln, define religion by the presence of four characteristics: a belief in some supernatural power or agent, a set of tenets and rules that guide behavior, an institution that organizes society, and a group of believers who are collectively committed to its teachings.

Polythetic people, such as anthropologists Clifford Geertz and William Alston, think that you can classify religions by their similarities. In other words, you can develop a “family tree” of religions based on the common properties they share. This approach allows scholars to examine the broader patterns in religious practice and to develop theories about their origins.