What Is Religion?


Religion is a social phenomenon that consists of beliefs, values, and practices regarding what a person believes to be spiritually significant. The term religion grew out of the Latin word religio, meaning “scrupulous devotion” or “conscientiousness.” Initially, people interpreted religio as an inner state, but the idea that it could have real-world effects changed how scholars understand the concept. Today, it is more common to see religion viewed as an external practice or set of activities that organize people into communities and provide moral guidelines for their lives.

The five largest religions, by world population, are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. However, these are not the only religions in the world, and many different types of religio exist. A large number of people also consider themselves members of a non-religious group, such as atheists or agnostics. These people may still be religious in their day-to-day life, for example, in how they act and interact with others, but they do not believe in a higher power or in an afterlife.

Most definitions of religion emphasize the belief that a supernatural deity created the universe and humankind, or at least holds the capacity to do so. These are what is known as substantive definitions, because they judge membership in a religion by the presence of certain beliefs. However, some scholars have criticized the notion that these beliefs must be innate in a person to qualify as religion. Instead, they have advocated functional definitions that define a religion by the role it plays in society.

For instance, Emile Durkheim argued that a religion is whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community, whether or not those beliefs involve belief in unusual realities. Paul Tillich used a similar definition that defined a religion by its axiological function of organizing a person’s values.

In the past decade or so, a new wave of scholarship has drawn attention to the constructed nature of the concept of religion. These scholars have criticized the way that the term is used to categorize different cultural forms of life. They have also questioned why the category of religion was invented in the first place, and how it has been used to criticize cultures that differ from our own.

Some of the more influential writers in this reflexive turn have proposed a different way to think about the concept of religion. They argue that while the word “religion” is a useful tool for understanding social reality, it is important to recognize that any taxonomy of that reality will always contain an element of arbitrariness. For this reason, it is helpful to work with open polythetic approaches that are willing to include a range of properties that might be considered to constitute a religion, rather than closing off the list or working with a monothetic approach. The resulting taxonomy might then be flexible enough to incorporate new examples in the future.