What Is Religion?

Religion is the cultural system by which people organize their beliefs, values and practices. It is a complex system, with many diverse aspects, some of which are common to all cultures. It is a system of belief in and reverence for one or more deities, often accompanied by ritual acts, ceremonies and other observances. It also includes moral standards and teachings about right and wrong, and the afterlife.

For most people, religion is a fundamental part of their lives. It provides a sense of purpose, meaning and significance to their existence. It is a way of life that provides guidance for ethical living and answers to the great mysteries of life. It is a source of comfort and strength in difficult times. It is a source of hope and inspiration in the face of death.

The term “religion” is used in a wide variety of ways and has been the subject of intense debate. For example, some have argued that the word has no defining properties and is best treated as a prototype concept. Others have emphasized that to understand the phenomenon of religion requires an understanding of human cognitive and emotional states and mental processes, not just the structures that produce those states.

The most basic definition of religion is that it is a set of beliefs and practices that recognizes the presence in nature of a superhuman personality in and behind the forces of the universe, the Supreme Being, or God. This supreme Being is conceived as one and indivisible in the highest religions, while in the lower religions, different phenomena of nature are associated with a host of distinct personalities. Moral qualities, corresponding to the prevailing ethical standards, are attributed to these deities.

Religions make it possible to live life as project (towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures). They protect and transmit the means by which to achieve goals that transcend organization—goals such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable and more successful way of living; a kinder, more just and more successful world; or the final destiny of this particular person and of the entire cosmos itself.

Because of the vast differences in the cultural systems that can be described as religions, it is not possible to assess whether any particular religion is true or false. Rather, it is necessary to assess the suitability of a given religion for a particular purpose. These purposes might be as varied as a study of forms of life across cultures, or, more narrowly, the assessment of a certain activity such as hockey, for example.