What Is Religion?

Almost everyone on the planet subscribes to some religion. It is one of the most widespread social formations in human history and it tends to be characterized as something that brings a person into close connection with a higher power, with an idea of the nature and purpose of the universe and of life itself. It may also be a set of rituals that people perform scrupulously, generously, ecstatically, prayerfully, sacrificially, puritanically, or in many other ways.

In its broadest sense, religions are about making life as project a bit easier in certain crucial ways. They give individuals means to achieve important goals, both proximate (such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living) and ultimate (having to do with the eventual condition of this or any other individual human being and of the cosmos itself).

Religions also make it possible for humans to organize their societies in the most sophisticated and complex ways imaginable. They provide the resource and the inspiration for most of the world’s art and architecture, much of music, dance, drama and literature, and for the exploration of the cosmos that came to be known as the natural sciences.

They teach and guide people in their relationships with other members of society in the most diverse ways imaginable, from family, to friendships, to marriages, to the broader community, to political and economic institutions. They establish rules of recognition and behavior, often imposing hierarchies on all levels of society. They are a source of morality and ethics, a framework for understanding the meaning of life and death and what it means to be human. They provide people with ways of dealing with the most important problems they will ever face, ranging from sex and fertility to war and peace and aging and illness.

Over the years, scholars have debated the definition of “religion”. Many of them – such as Clifford Geertz and Emile Asad – have criticized narrowing the term so that it excludes people and practices from its scope. They have argued that the concept of religion is socially constructed and thus subject to shifts in its meaning.

Increasingly, scholars have adopted what is called a “polythetic” approach to the study of religion. Polythetic analyses recognize that the terms “religion”, “belief” and “god” have various defining properties that are not mutually exclusive, but can be combined to yield richly multifactorial definitions of religion. This approach is in response to a growing dissatisfaction with classical, monothetic approaches to the study of religion that fasten on one defining property or another. It is also an effort to avoid the claim that a social category like religion has a static essence.