What Is Religion?

Religion is a vast and complicated collection of human practices, beliefs, attitudes, symbols, texts, values, and ways of dealing with ultimate concerns. Those with a monotheistic or theistic worldview tend to think of their religion as a faith in one God; those with polytheistic or pantheistic views see religion as a way of life in which multiple gods or spirits share the role of divine creator and benevolent ruler. In some traditions, a religious community may believe that certain texts have been given scripture status and that people have been invested with spiritual or moral authority.

The fact that this concept covers such a broad range of social practices raises some philosophical issues, not unlike those that have sprung up around the concepts of literature, democracy, or culture itself. In the case of religion, the first is whether it is possible to sort these different activities into a coherent taxon that has an essence that is necessary and sufficient (as distinct from one which merely describes family resemblances).

Another issue arises because the word religion is used as a synonym for all sorts of beliefs and attitudes. Some scholars have taken a functional approach to the category, defining it as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values—whether those concerns involve belief in unusual realities or not. This definition, which is often referred to as a “monothetic” one, is based on the work of Emil Durkheim and Paul Tillich and has been applied to some of the major religious traditions in the world.

Other scholars, however, have questioned the value of a monothetic approach. They argue that there is something inherently illogical about the idea that a term like religion could be defined in this way. They have called for a phenomenological study of the diverse practices to be undertaken.

A phenomenological approach to religion is intended to be a full account of the lived experience of these diverse religious traditions. Such a study is inherently historical, tracing the ways in which these traditions have been shaped by their environment and by the people who have made them. It also examines the effects of these traditions on those who participate in them.

It can be seen, for example, in the various forms of ritual and symbolic expression that are the heart of many religions. These include worship services and festivals, prayer, meditation, and mystical experiences, as well as the more practical aspects of religions such as their codes of recognition and expected behavior and their power to make human beings feel safe and secure. It can be seen, too, in the ways that religious ideas and practices have nourished such creative pursuits as art and architecture, music, drama, dance, and poetry and that they have provided the inspiration for the explorations of nature which issued into the natural sciences. It is this rich heritage which makes it worthwhile to undertake the study of religion in all its diversity.