What is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that are organized around values that people find meaningful and important. Most of the world’s 6.6 billion people subscribe to one of the many religions.

Almost all religions are concerned in some way with salvation, whether it is in a literal sense as in going to heaven after death, or in a more symbolic sense as in reaching nirvana, or enlightenment, as in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Other aspects of most religions include the creation myths and legends that explain why certain things happen in nature; sacred places, objects, and symbols; a set of rules or codes of moral behavior; and rituals and ceremonies that are performed to express or convey spiritual and emotional experiences.

Some philosophers have defined religion as a belief in the existence of god or other spirit or supernatural power, with a sense of transcendence. Others have used a more broad definition, such as the American religious scholar Paul Tillich’s (1902-1965) description of religion as dealing with “ultimate concern,” which he said was humankind’s search for meaning and value in life and in the universe. Yet still others have restricted the definition of religion to include only those belief systems that claim to teach or promote the existence of a god or gods and the worship of them.

Despite the vast differences in the beliefs and practices of different societies, religion is universal throughout the globe. Various scholars have attempted to answer the question of why, and what is it about religion that seems so universally shared by humans?

Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist, believed that the earliest religion was animism, which is the concept that everything—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather patterns, even words and thoughts—has a spirit or essence. Animism was replaced in modern times by monotheism, which is the belief that there is a single god or goddess responsible for the world.

Religion is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is a way for people to make meaning of their lives and give them a purpose. People are willing to live and even die for their religion. It is also a source of strength for families and communities. It has been shown that regular religious practice helps to prevent out-of-wedlock births, strengthens marriages, and contributes to high levels of family satisfaction and well-being.

There is a need for society to understand the importance of religion and to recognize its role in families, communities, and our nation’s democracy. Legislators should seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore the impact of religion on society and, where appropriate, to support its contribution. Religious leaders should be encouraged to speak out on these issues and educate the public about their faith. Religious practice provides a powerful answer to many of our most pressing social problems, such as poverty, illiteracy, and drug abuse. The time is ripe to have a serious, respectful discussion of the role of religion in America.