What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad term for the set of beliefs and practices that many people around the world hold as sacred. Almost all religions share some fundamental teachings, including the belief in a higher power and the idea that humans have a moral obligation to do good. However, there is a lot of variation in the specifics between different religions and in the ways that believers express their faith. Some scholars criticize religion for its effect on the social inequality and social conflict that it often promotes, while others acknowledge the positive role that many religious traditions play in the lives of their followers.

The concept of religion is controversial in part because it can be difficult to define, especially as it relates to social reality. One common definition defines it as people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It can also include the way in which people cope with the ultimate concerns of life and their place within it, whether these are expressed in terms of a relationship with gods and spirits or, in more humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion, in terms of a connection to a broader human community or to the natural world.

Emile Durkheim, the first sociologist to use this term, focused on its societal functions, including the way it binds people together (social solidarity), promotes consistency in behavior (social control), and provides strength for coping with life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose). A functionalist approach is also influential in Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, even if that concern does not involve believing in any unusual realities.

Other definitions of religion focus on the meaning and significance that religious symbols, ceremonies, and rituals have for people. In this respect, anthropologists like Clifford Geertz have emphasized the symbolic nature of religion and its emphasis on action, as well as the way that symbols are created to carry meaning that derives from their broader cultural context. This approach is reflected in the hermeneutic method of analysis that has become widely accepted among sociologists and other disciplines.

There is a debate as to whether the word “religion” can have a real or lexical definition, but both realists and nonrealists recognize that, despite its contested nature, the concept of religion names something that would operate in the world even if it were not named. Scholars such as Talal Asad critique the concept of religion by pointing out that assumptions baked into its use distort our understanding of its historical reality, but they do not deny that it can still refer to a form of life that exists even if it is not named as a religion. This is similar to how the term culture has been criticized for its inherent bias toward the subjective. See also agnosticism; atheism; buddhism; cult; monotheism; polytheism; shamanism.