What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, beliefs and practices that have a spiritual dimension. It may also have a moral dimension. Religions are found in every culture, and they vary widely in their beliefs and practices. Some are monotheistic, believing in one God or a supreme being. Others are polytheistic, believing in many gods or spirits.

Religious beliefs and practices often include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of deities or saints), sacrifices, feasts, matrimonial and funerary services, trances, meditation, music, art, and public service. They may also include teachings, ethical codes, morals, and laws. Some religions are so encompassing that they cover every aspect of life, including work and family life.

Some religions have sacred histories, narratives and mythologies that explain the origin of the universe and other natural phenomena. These stories may be transmitted orally, in written form and in monuments, sacred texts, and symbols. Religious traditions and practices can also be based on a sense of awe or wonder about the universe and its origins.

Religion can be used to control behavior, as an outlet for emotional distress and tension, to give meaning to life, and to promote psychological and physical well-being. It can also serve to bind people together and strengthen social order. It can help people learn how to be good members of society and can motivate them to work for social change.

Attempts to define religion have ranged from open polythetic approaches that allow for the existence of more than one religion in a given culture, to single criterion monothetic definitions, such as Edward Tylor’s belief in spiritual beings or Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern. There has been a recent reflexive turn in the social sciences and humanities, where scholars have begun to draw back the camera lens on concepts that were once taken for granted as unproblematically “there.”

A major difficulty with the study of religion is that it is difficult to distinguish between what is and what is not religion. Some scholars, such as sociologists like Edward Durkheim and anthropologists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and E. A. Feuerstein, have proposed a taxonomy for identifying religions. These taxonomies are based on an underlying assumption that there is a meaningful, stable core of properties that can be identified in all religions.

However, other scholars have argued that this approach is flawed because it does not consider the possibility of new religions, and because it excludes the influence of religion on culture. They have suggested that a more useful approach is to understand religion as an abstract category in which all forms of life are classified, rather than as a set of necessary and sufficient properties. It is this approach that is most widely used today. It has led to the development of a more flexible concept of religion, that can be applied to any group of cultural types that share certain common features. This is known as the family resemblance concept. It has important implications for understanding religion in the contemporary world, as well as the past.