What Is Religion?


Religion is human beings’ relationship to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It typically involves a belief in one or more gods or spirits and often a concept of salvation; a belief that life on earth has meaning and purpose; and a system of beliefs, practices, or values that people use to cope with life’s ultimate concerns. Moreover, most religions include a community and place of worship; a priesthood or clergy to lead the community; a system of ethics to guide behavior; a sacred text or texts; a concept of the universe that includes a creator or gods; and a founder or leader who is invested with godlike status.

In this article, we will look at what we know about religion, why it persists in many places, and the benefits it provides to societies. We will begin with a discussion of the major religions of the world: Christianity (in pink), Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional folk religion (in yellow). We will then examine how these differ from each other. We will also consider some of the issues that arise when people compare religious systems, such as the difficulty of drawing clear lines between them.

Traditionally, scholars have defined religion in terms of its properties and relations to other forms of life. Such a definition is sometimes called a “substantive” definition. A substantive definition determines what qualifies as religion based on whether it is a set of beliefs about an unusual kind of reality.

While a substantial definition of religion has been useful and powerful, critics have challenged its validity, particularly in modern times. For example, some argue that religion was invented by European colonizers and should be treated as a social construct rather than a real thing.

Others, however, have argued that it is important to continue to study religion, even if we reject its substance. They have criticized the premise that it is impossible to correct a substantial definition, but they have urged that it is necessary to abandon a stipulative definition in favor of an open polythetic or multidimensional approach.

These approaches are useful in a variety of disciplines. Psychologists, for example, have argued that religion fulfills emotional and psychological needs in humans, including the need to overcome fear of death and the need for a sense of order and purpose. Neuroscientists have discovered that certain parts of the brain are active during religious experiences. Similarly, sociologists have found that religion has many positive effects on society: It improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, morality, and empathy. It has also been responsible for founding educational institutions, hospitals, and charities. Consequently, a comprehensive understanding of religion is necessary for any profession or discipline that interacts with it. As such, it is crucial that we understand why so many people ascribe to a religion. This will help us develop more effective public policy, psychotherapy, and education. It will also help us better understand the religious experiences of the two-thirds of the world’s population that are nonreligious.