What Is Religion?


Religion is a system of beliefs and practices for honoring, resolving and channeling one’s relationships with the universe, the cosmos or an ultimate supreme being. It may be global, covering all of humankind and beyond, or it may be small-scale and local, confined to a village or a region. It may be ritualistic, involving prayers and meditation, sacrificial or generous, superstitious or puritanical, or ecstatically inspiring. It may be a means of finding order, security and stability in a world that is often chaotic, uncertain and unpredictable. It also evokes many types of religious specialist-priests, witches, shamans, imams, gurus, monks and nuns-and can be organized in ways that range from mystery religions to missionary religions.

A central function of religions is the protection and transmission of the means to attain some of life’s most important goals. These may be proximate–increasing one’s wisdom, charity and success in the present life–or they may be ultimate, dealing with the final condition of this or any other life and of the universe itself. Religions provide maps of time and space which help people to deal with, and even to transcend, the many limitations that stand across the project of life.

For most people, religion is a source of hope and confidence, joy and love, faith and patience, humility and aspiration to high ideals. It can also be a powerful force for promoting social justice and equality, caring for the environment and helping those in need. However, there are also those who believe that the concept of religion is an artificial construct and that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism and racism.

In addition to its spiritual and moral foundations, religion can offer a sense of community and connection. This is important because isolation and loneliness are major sources of stress in themselves, and can exacerbate the effects of other challenges that people encounter in their lives. Many studies have found that practicing religion can reduce stress and improve overall health, by offering a framework for navigating life’s many difficulties and by providing an outlet for anxiety.

The most important issue in the study of religion is how it is defined and what criteria should be used to distinguish it from non-religion. Some scholars have proposed substantive definitions, such as Edward Tylor’s belief in spirit beings, or functional ones like Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern. Others have argued for a polythetic approach, treating the concept as a class which can be distinguished from non-religion by a number of different properties.