What Is Religion?


Religions provide their followers with ways to attain the most important goals imaginable. Some of these are proximate, to do with a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living; others are ultimate, to do with the final condition of any or all human beings and of the cosmos itself.

Religion is a fundamental aspect of many cultures. It teaches people how to live together, and can help them to care for the sick and the poor and to fight against injustice and oppression. But what is it exactly that makes a belief system a religion? And how can we know when someone’s definition of “religion” is flawed or even absurd?

Generally speaking, religion is an acknowledgment of man’s dependence on the mysterious, supernatural Creator of all things. This dependence is expressed on the subjective side in the deeply felt need for Divine help and on the objective side in acts of homage. It invokes the emotions as well as the intellect, and stirs the imagination and the desire for communion with God. Sensible tokens of Divine good will arouse hope, the achievement of benefits in answer to prayer engenders gratitude, and the sense of the immensity of God’s power and wisdom arouses awe and reverence.

A number of scholarly definitions have tried to capture the essence of religion. For example, the social scientist Emil Durkheim argued that religion is a system of beliefs and values that is central to a group’s identity and solidarity. Paul Tillich took a functional approach, arguing that “religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not these involve belief in any unusual realities.” Other scholars have taken a more reflexive turn, pulling back the camera so as to examine the social construction of the concept of religion.