What Is Religion?


Religion is an umbrella term that covers a variety of beliefs and practices. People use their religion to give meaning and value to their lives. They live by, and sometimes die for their beliefs. They form moral codes based on their values and their relationship with their religion. Religion provides a basis for social order and gives their lives meaning and purpose. People need a sense of meaning and values to navigate the world around them.

Almost every culture in the world has some sort of religion. It may not be formalized or organized like Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam but it is there in the form of folk traditions and spirituality. It is also present in the forms of belief in ancestors, spirits and cosmological orders. Even modern societies like Japan or America have religion in the form of Buddhist practice and Evangelical Christianity.

The variety of activities that are claimed to fall under the category of Religion raises questions about the validity of the concept as a social taxon. Some scholars, such as those involved in the reflexive turn of sociological studies, argue that the concept religion is a modern invention and that its semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. In fact, there are some scholars who are so critical of the notion of religion as a category that they assert that it does not exist at all.

Other scholars, however, accept the utility of the concept and work with a wide range of definitions. Some rely on functional approaches, such as Emile Durkheim’s claim that religion is any unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that create a cohesive force to unite society into one moral community. Others, such as Paul Tillich, define religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.

Still others work with polythetic definitions, such as those outlined in George A. Lindbeck’s Nature of Doctrine. This approach to the study of religion holds that a phenomenon can be considered a religion if it has a number of crisscrossing and partially overlapping features, much like the family resemblances discussed by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Regardless of how the concept of Religion is defined, it is important for those interested in understanding it to consider what the term implies. For example, it is often thought that Religion refers to the belief in a god or in an afterlife but this is largely an assumption of Western culture. It is far more likely that Religion encompasses a person’s relationship to his or her own values, which is the primary focus of most religions. It is these values that have the power to transform and to inspire, but it is important to recognize the varying degrees of transformation and inspiration that may occur within the same religious group. These are the differences that make religion so diverse, and why a single, monotheistic belief cannot be classified as being the “true” religion.