What Is Religion?


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they hold to be holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual or divine. In more religious traditions, these concerns are typically expressed in terms of belief in a god or spirits; in less religious traditions, they may be articulated in terms of beliefs about the natural world or about human communities. In any case, they tend to involve a sense of a transcendent power that is more important than any particular thing or activity.

While scholars have long debated the meaning of religion, there is broad consensus that it includes a system of faith and practice based on the worship of one or more deities. It also includes a set of moral beliefs and behaviors rooted in these faiths. Its practitioners often find comfort, guidance and a sense of community through their participation in religious activities. Some research even suggests that people who regularly attend religious services are healthier than those who do not.

In addition to a belief in gods, religions typically include other elements such as sacred texts, ceremonies and symbols, moral codes of conduct, rituals and rites, and a way to communicate with the spirits. While it is possible to worship alone, many people participate in organized religions, including churches, synagogues and temples. These gatherings provide a sense of community, a common purpose and hope for the future. They also provide moral support and guidance for life’s difficult choices.

Historically, religions have been designed to address human needs that science cannot address, such as the fear of death and a need for a spiritual experience. Many of these early religions, like tribal totems and ancestor worship, involved the belief in protective or guardian gods. Over time, these primitive beliefs evolved into more elaborate systems that included stories about the creation of the world and tales about individual gods.

Today, there are many different approaches to the study of religion. Some, such as the sociologists Emile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead, rely on what are called substantive definitions of religion, identifying it in terms of its belief in a unique kind of reality. Other scholars, such as Rodney Needham and J. Z. Smith, argue that a functional approach is more useful in studying the concept, in which a form of life can be classified as religion on the basis of the role it plays in human society.

Some critics of the idea of religion reject its substance-based definitions altogether. In fact, a popular slogan has been to “stop treating religion as if it were a thing,” implying that there is no such thing as a religion and that the word’s modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. In other cases, those who favor a functional definition of religion have argued that a belief in any type of supernatural power could qualify as a religion if it unified groups around a shared goal and a shared set of morals. These arguments have received some support from scientists, who are exploring the role that religion can play in human evolution.