What Is Religion?

Religion is, by general agreement, the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. It is usually characterized by belief in or worship of a supreme deity or gods, but it can also involve the way people deal with other aspects of the universe, such as natural world, human community, or even themselves. It is also characterized by texts regarded as sacred, and by the veneration of particular people as invested with spiritual or moral authority.

Religions make life as a project a little easier by protecting and transmitting the means to attain the most important goals that can be conceived (be they proximate, which have to do with a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living) or ultimate, which have to do with the final condition of this or any other human being and of the cosmos itself. In addition, they create whole worlds of order and entertainment.

Until recently, most attempts to analyze religion have been monothetic in that they operated with the classical view that every instance of a concept will share one or more defining properties which put it into that category. However, in recent decades, there has been a move towards a polythetic approach which recognizes that there are different kinds of religion and that these might be defined in diverse ways.

This shift in analytical framework is largely due to the realization that it is impossible to understand a religious phenomenon without examining its structures. While the structure/agency debate still rages on, it is generally accepted that it is necessary to include both the hidden mental states which generate the phenomena and their visible organizational forms.

There is also the realization that it would be impossible to understand many of the most important religious phenomena unless we recognize the fact that, in addition to being institutions which produce certain practices, religions are cultural phenomenon which are produced by a variety of social dynamics. For example, a religion will be shaped by its anthropological context and the history of interactions between that culture and others in relation to that context.

The term religion has been criticized by some thinkers as being overly narrow, especially for the purpose of social science research. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor argued that the narrow definition of religion as ‘the belief in and worship of a spirit or supreme being’ excludes many cultures which have developed spiritual beliefs. Moreover, the definition of religion has been accused of a great deal of Western bias. Despite these problems, the term continues to be used as a category label for an extremely broad range of social formations. It is not, therefore, likely to disappear any time soon.