What Is Religion?

Religion is the set of belief systems that shape the ways in which human beings organize themselves and their societies. It includes a wide range of beliefs, practices, symbols, and rituals. It also involves a system of values and ethics that is used to guide life decisions. It is a powerful and often pervasive force in the lives of people around the world. The term comes from the Latin word religio, which means a sense of scrupulousness or piety. In western antiquity, it seems to have come to mean a particular way of worshipping gods, and thus a group of practices that distinguishes itself from other groups. The term then shifted, perhaps because of a need to accommodate more complex beliefs and practices, to the idea of a moral system that is central to social cohesion and that guides human lives.

It is commonly assumed that all religious belief and practice are directed toward some supreme deity. This assumption, however, is misleading. Most of the religions that humans have in fact developed are not directed at any supreme being at all but rather, in varying degrees, toward a variety of other people or natural phenomena: the spirits of place and the dead; the sun and moon; mountains, rivers, forests, lakes, and seas; plants, animals, and insects; the climactic battle of the Mahabharata epic; the guru or spiritual master; and so on.

Many scholars have argued that to define religion in terms of beliefs is inadequate, and that the term should be defined functionally as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community, regardless of whether they believe in any supreme being. Emile Durkheim, for example, proposed such a definition of religion. Other scholars have followed this approach, which is referred to as the functionalist or “synoptic” view of religion.

Religions are protective systems that have proven successful over millennia, and so they tend to be very long-lived and well entrenched. They provide maps of time and space, and they connect people with the world and each other in a number of different ways. They help people to deal with the problems of their lives, which are not just limited to survival and gratification but extend to include explorations of human possibility.

As such, they are complex and incredibly diverse. They may be characterized by a strong centre of control and authority, with a clear hierarchy of pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and nuns, laypeople; or they may have no overall structure at all, but simply consist of a set of practices that people use to connect with one another and with their spiritual world. The phenomenological model of Ninian Smart, for example, defines a religion as comprising seven dimensions: the practical and ritual; the experiential or emotional; the narrative or mythical; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and legal; and the social and institutional. These models are all useful, but they lack a crucial ingredient: the underlying material reality that people bring to their religious activities.