What Is Religion?


Religion is a semantically contested concept, a social taxon that includes a variety of distinct practices with very different worldviews. It is a family-resemblance concept rather than a necessary and sufficient one, with no essential property that makes it unique or distinguishable from other concepts used to sort cultural types (literature, democracy, culture itself).

A common view of the term is that it refers to people’s relations to that which they regard as sacred, ultimate, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. This concern is typically expressed in terms of a belief in a god or spirits or, in more humanistic and naturalistic contexts, in terms of relationships to or attitudes toward the broader human community or the natural world.

Most religions have a set of moral teachings that instruct their followers on how to treat their fellow humans. This often translates into a commitment to support charitable organizations, help those in need, or engage in other activities with the well-being of others as their primary objective. Religions also provide a sense of belonging for individuals. This is particularly important for those whose lives are marked by adversity or who lack traditional sources of identity. In addition to providing a sense of belonging, religious groups often offer their followers a way to feel connected to the past and to those who have come before them.

This functional approach to religion is articulated most clearly by the sociologist Émile Durkheim, who defined it as “a system of values which organizes and gives direction to a person’s life.” The idea is that this system creates solidarity by giving members a shared set of beliefs and by facilitating interaction and communication among them.

Durkheim further argued that the practice of religion is an agent of socialization and that, as such, it contributes to the stability of societies. Other writers have offered similar insights, including the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the philosopher Karl Marx.

The scholarly debate about the nature of religion has tended to revolve around what features must be present for something to be considered a religion. Various definitions of the concept have been proposed, but none has widespread acceptance. Those who have proposed definitions have typically fallen into either the monothetic or polythetic camp. The debate has not focused on a critique of the concept itself, though some scholars have questioned its validity and usefulness as a tool for examining cultures.