What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad category for human belief and practice, encompassing a large and diverse set of ideas and practices. It is often viewed as an essential component of culture, along with art, education, food, and language. As such, it has been subjected to intense scholarly study for its impact on society and the way people live.

In the field of social science, scholars use the concept of “religion” to sort out a range of practices and beliefs that are held by a group as sacred. In some contexts, the word is also used to describe a unified system of moral values and norms.

The definition of religion has long been debated, with some scholars preferring a “monothetic” approach that fastens onto a single property that defines a religious class; this is contrasted with polythetic approaches that recognize many properties that may be common to, or even typical of, a particular religion. A third option is to view religion as a family-resemblance concept, wherein any set of beliefs and practices that can be shown to have a substantial effect on a group’s members can be said to be a religion.

While stipulative definitions are useful as a starting point, they are flawed by their over-emphasis on beliefs and practices rather than on the ways in which those beliefs and practices manifest themselves. As such, they are not a satisfactory alternative to polythetic approaches. De Muckadell (2014), for instance, criticizes stipulative definitions of religion as forcing scholars to “accept whatever definition is offered”.

In addition to being a set of beliefs and practices, religion can be understood as the way that people deal with their ultimate concerns about life after death, morality, and the world in general. This can take the form of praying, meditating, worshiping, and engaging in acts of charity or public service. It can also be seen in the cult of saints, texts that are considered scripture, and in the veneration of deities or spirits.

It can also be seen in the way that groups of people organize themselves, in particular by establishing rules and institutions to manage their activities. It can also be seen in the way that individuals are shaped by their religion, either directly through adherence to its teachings or indirectly through the influence of other religious traditions and secular cultures.