What Is Religion?

Religion is a concept used to label sets of cultural behaviors and practices that differ markedly from each other and from philosophical or purely ethical systems. The earliest historical religions appear to have sprung from human curiosity about life after death and fear of uncontrollable forces. Humanity’s quest for hope turned these concerns into religious faith. Hope grew in the form of a belief in a divine creator who watched over humanity, an expectation of future glory and reward, or a deep sense of need to bring oneself into friendly, beneficent communion with the mysterious deity.

In the last several decades, scholars have begun to rethink the nature of religious phenomena. They have recast the notion of religion as a social genus, a category that is present in many cultures without being universal. This approach, based on the idea that social kinds have prototypes, allows for comparisons across different religions to reveal common features. It also suggests that it is possible to define religion, at least functionally, in ways that do not rely on specific beliefs about gods or supernatural beings.

For example, the anthropologist Rodney Needham points out that most religions have some sort of moral code. Generally, these codes involve a set of rules about how people should treat each other and outsiders. They also involve an explanation of the origin of these moral codes, frequently by reference to supernatural beings who created both the code and humanity.

Although few religions include explicit metaphysics, most do contain some sort of belief in a divine creator and/or a cosmic order. The philosopher Emile Durkheim argues that these metaphysical beliefs are the basis of most religions, but he also offers a definition that turns on the function of creating solidarity. Another functional definition is Paul Tillich’s, who defines religion as whatever concern most orients a person’s values.

It is also possible to analyze religions by looking at the way they organize their activities. A major aspect of religion is ritual, which is characterized by the setting and performance of certain events and the use of symbolic objects. This is the domain of religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. These are the religions that are most familiar to Westerners. But there are other forms of organized religion, notably indigenous religions and Chinese Confucianism and Daoism, that can be classified in the same way.

The most important characteristic that sets religions apart from other cultural formations is the way in which they organize their communities. Religious communities are often centered on an institution, such as a temple or a church. They are usually governed by an authority, such as a priest or prophet. This authority is responsible for teaching the religion’s doctrine and for governing ritual practice. In addition to these activities, religious communities often sponsor charity and provide a sense of belonging to their members. This binds them together as a community. In these and other ways, religion creates a sense of belonging that transcends a particular culture or region.