What Is Religion?

Religion has long been a topic of intense debate and study. Scholars have offered a variety of definitions, some of which are very broad, such as those that would include communism and fascism as religions, while others are very narrow. One common view is that all religions share certain characteristics, such as belief in God or a supreme being, and that these are sufficient to classify them as religions. This approach has some support among anthropologists, who often view religion as a social taxon based on family resemblance, while theologians and philosophers tend to favor a more analytical definition that looks for essential properties.

A common misconception is that religion has to do with a belief in a particular kind of deity or supernatural beings, but there are religions that do not have such beliefs. Some scholars, such as Emile Durkheim, have used a functional definition that looks for the ways in which a group of people form a moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in supernatural beings. Some researchers have also sought to develop a more scientific approach, seeking to understand how religion might function in the brain and why it might be so widespread in the human species.

Some scholars, such as Clifford Geertz, have developed an approach to studying culture that emphasizes the importance of understanding how religious practices are interpreted, not just what they actually mean in terms of words and actions. This hermeneutic approach has influenced those who study religion and has reinforced the tendency to treat religion as a complex rather than a simple entity. Other scholars, such as Martin Jay and George Herbert Mead, have used an analytical approach that seeks to distinguish the essential properties of religion from those that are merely cultural.

One major theory about the origins of religion is that it grew out of human curiosity about the big questions in life, such as what happens after death, and a fear of forces that are larger than humans and thus uncontrollable. Religion offered a way to turn these fears and curiosity into hope. It was a way to believe in the goodness of a creator, to have faith in a higher power that watched over and protected humanity, and to live lives of morality and meaning.

Religion continues to play a large role in many societies around the world, but it is not universal. There are those who do not consider their beliefs or rituals to be religion, and there is much debate about what, if anything, is necessary for someone to consider something to be a religion. While this debate is ongoing, most academics recognize that there are many different religious traditions and that it is important to study them in their own terms rather than in terms of the beliefs or doctrines they may contain. In addition, it is recognized that the term religion has been a cultural construction and should not be viewed as an inevitability, any more than other abstract concepts that sort cultural types like literature or democracy.