The Definition of Religion

Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In some traditions, these concerns are formulated in terms of human beings’ relations with gods or spirits; in others they take the form of one’s relationship to, or attitude toward, the broader human community and the natural world. In many religious systems, texts are deemed to have scriptural status and people are esteemed to be invested with spiritual or moral authority.

Religion, or at least the concept of religion, has been a subject of scholarly investigation since ancient times. Philosophers have often struggled to develop a definition of religion that is both encompassing and precise. There are, however, some common characteristics that most religions share. These include a sense of the sacred, a belief in life after death, and ritual practices that are intended to purify one’s soul. Nevertheless, these common features cannot fully describe the wide variety of religious beliefs and practices that exist in the world today.

A significant problem facing the development of a definition for religion is the fact that no clear line separates a religion from a philosophy or an ethical system. In the past, philosophers have tended to define religion as a set of rules for social behavior. This definition has shifted considerably over time, with some philosophers, such as John Locke and Voltaire, arguing that religion ought to be separated from other social institutions and that the practice of religion should be replaced by scientific inquiry.

Another approach to the definition of religion involves examining its historical development. According to the sociobiological theory of religion, the earliest religions were probably early and highly successful protective systems that were tied both to the potentialities of the brain and body and to the necessity for survival. Once these protections were in place, they allowed people to explore their environment and their own natures, and this exploration became known as religion.

The early religions of the Nile River and the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia included worship of tribal totems and ancestor spirits, as well as belief in guardian and protective gods. Over time, these primitive religions developed into more complex belief systems, which included myths about the creation of the universe and stories about individual gods and goddesses. In addition to belief, most of these early religions also incorporated a sense of the sacred in the world around them, a ritual structure, and codes of ethical conduct.

In recent decades, scholars have pulled the camera back to examine the constructed nature of the idea of religion. Some have even gone so far as to claim that the word religion is an invented category, that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism, and that it should be abandoned as a term for describing social reality. Other scholars have taken a more moderate position and suggest that religion is a kind of social genus that can be present in several cultures at once, with some shared features such as rituals and sacred texts.