What Is Religion?


Religions have shaped history in all cultures, providing meaning and a framework for human life. They have also been sources of stability and conflict, creating identities that bring people together or that cause them to split apart. In addition, they have been important forces for educating the public and for creating cultural artifacts.

The term religion describes a vast array of beliefs and practices. It can be difficult to define, a challenge that has helped fuel the academic study of religion. Scholars have offered a wide range of definitions, including monothetic and polythetic approaches. Some have sought to determine the essence of a religion, such as theism and atheism; others have focused on their social functions, such as community building or moral teachings. Still others have used historical methods to analyze their phenomenological characteristics, such as ritual and mythology.

A more recent trend has been to look at what makes a religion a religion. In this sense, scholars have “pulled the camera back” to examine how what we consider a religion is constructed and reflects our own values. This has given rise to a number of different theories, including social constructionism and structuralism. These approaches have been applied to a variety of academic disciplines, including history and sociology.

Most scholars now agree that religion is an essential part of human life. It provides a foundation for moral order and answers fundamental questions about the nature of the universe. It also teaches people how to live and, at times, what to die for. There are few other things in the world that serve as the object of humans’ faith, for which they are willing to lay down their lives.

It is important to remember that the study of religions began in a particular context, and that there are inherent methodological problems with comparative history. For example, the notion that some forms of life are more “true” than others is a Eurocentric and subjective assumption.

To combat these problems, scholars have developed methods that allow them to see religions in their historicity and in the ways they have interacted with the social worlds of which they are a part. The goal is to grasp the complex, dynamic and inextricable connections between the various aspects of human life.

Substantive definitions of religion focus on the nature of a religion’s beliefs and practices, and they usually use the categories of supernatural or natural to distinguish between them. One such approach was devised by Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those beliefs involve belief in unusual realities). Other scholars have taken functional approaches to this question, defining a religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (once again whether or not that concern involves belief in any unusual realities).