What Is Religion?


Religion consists of people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It may encompass all sorts of phenomena, from a particular god or goddess, or a spirit; to a group of religious beliefs and practices; or a system of morals. Religion often includes a worldview, a set of ethics or values, prophecies, and a hierarchy of authority. It may also include a collection of rituals and ceremonies, texts, sanctified places, and myth and symbol.

There are two philosophical issues that arise for the concept of religion as it is applied to different practices: 1) the nature of its essence; and 2) the question of how to define a religious phenomenon. Some scholars, influenced by Durkheim’s functional approach, have tried to understand religion by describing its functions. In this view, religion is what a person’s dominant concerns are that give them a sense of purpose. This definition is not monothetic, however, and it has its critics.

Others take a more analytical approach to understanding religion, and see it as an abstract concept used to sort cultural types. They are not convinced that there is any such thing as a religion, but they do not want to deny that certain things may be called religious or that some forms of life can be described as religions. This is a polythetic approach and it is criticized for being ethnocentric as well. Nonetheless, there is evidence that people who are religious tend to have better health than those who are not, and it is difficult to determine whether the improvement in health is due to the religion itself or other factors.