What Defines Religion?


Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and traditions that are believed to be supernatural. It encompasses a wide range of spiritual ideas, but it typically includes belief in one or more gods, the practice of prayer and meditation, the use of symbols and ritual, and adherence to moral codes that bind individuals to groups. Religion is also often characterized by a feeling of spiritual transcendence and of a deep relationship to the universe. It can also include belief in a particular eschatological end of human existence and the hope for a future life.

Whether in the form of a monotheistic religion or of multiple religions, each of them believes in an ultimate divinity, and they all believe that human beings must obey its rules to live a good life and to achieve salvation. These esthetic values, however, are not the essence of religion. What lies at its core is man’s recognition of his helplessness and of the need for Divine assistance, a deeply felt sense of dependence. Coupled with this is the conviction that he can bring himself into friendly communion with the deity or deities and thus find aid, peace, and happiness.

Many scholars, including Durkheim and Clifford Geertz, regard religion as a social phenomenon that exists in societies of every type, while others, such as Paul Tillich, consider it to be whatever is most dominant in a person’s values, whether or not the beliefs that are held contain any unusual realities. Others, such as Margaret Smith and Asad, criticize the tendency to treat religion as a subjective psychological state by shifting the focus to societal structures that produce these states.

The question of what defines a religion is important to the study of society, because religions have had an enormous impact on people’s lives. Research shows that religious people tend to be healthier, have better relationships with other people, and are more likely to report being happy. They also have lower rates of sexual dysfunction, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and illegitimate childbearing, and they are more likely to be active in civic organizations, volunteer in community projects, and help with social problems.

The concept of religion is not a scientific category, but it has powerful social and political consequences. For example, it has been used to categorize cultures as godless and therefore inferior, and it was a key tool of European colonialism. Critics of the concept say that it is an invention of modernity and that it should be abandoned as a taxon for a group of practices. However, other critics suggest that this move would erode the power of the concept by making it harder to analyze the social functions that it serves.