What Is Religion?

Religion is a complex phenomenon. It is a social taxon that encompasses a wide range of practices from all over the world, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. In addition, there are many religious activities that do not have a name but that can be described in terms of their characteristics and the way they are practiced. These are sometimes known as folk religions.

What all of these have in common is that they monitor, code, protect, and transmit what humans have come to consider most valuable. This includes a system for guiding human behavior, which is to say that they help people live in ways that are wiser and more fruitful, charitable and helpful, and that provide for the survival of one another and of all of life on earth. It also, in most religions at least, deals with salvation, which can be taken in a very literal sense (as in going to heaven after death as in Christianity) or more in a symbolic sense (as in attaining nirvana in the next life in some Eastern religions).

Religious values are central to most cultures and societies and give structure to their lives. They are at the heart of art and music, in agriculture, architecture, engineering, literature, drama, history, and many of the other human pursuits that are most valued by those who engage in them. The study of religions is therefore an important part of the study of human culture.

Some academics take a functional approach to the question of what religion is and argue that religion names whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values, even if it does not involve belief in any unusual realities. This is a view that can be seen in Durkheim’s definition, as well as in Paul Tillich’s.

Anthropologists and sociobiologists, on the other hand, suggest that religion is an early and highly successful protective system based on humankind’s biology and need for meaning and value in order to orient itself to life on earth. They point to studies of brain and nervous systems that suggest that there are circuits in the human mind that respond to spiritual experiences. They also point to evolutionary studies that suggest that religion may be a result of humankind’s development of self-awareness.

The fact that there are so many different beliefs and so many ways that people live religiously, from devotedly to haphazardly, scrupulously to indiscriminately, makes it difficult to find any one definition of what is meant by religion. Some scholars have gone so far as to claim that the concept of religion is a false one, that it is simply an invented category and should be replaced by more useful ones, such as family resemblance concepts like “ecstatic experience” or “cultural identity.” Other critics go even further, arguing that there is no such thing as religion, at least not as we know it, and that any discussion of it is pointless.