What Is Religion?


Religion is a unified system of beliefs, values, and practices that gives its members an object of devotion, someone or something sacred. It involves a code of moral conduct and beliefs about a transcendent reality. Many of the world’s 6.5 billion people identify with a religious community in some way. Religion is also the source of much conflict in the modern world.

Anthropologists have found that early human beings tried to control uncontrollable aspects of their environment, such as the weather and success in hunting, by manipulating them or pleading with higher powers to do so. Some of these attempts were made through magic, which tries to make the world directly subject to human will, and others through religion, which tries to influence the world indirectly by appealing to an outside power. Examples of both kinds of manipulation and pleading can be seen in cave paintings all over the world.

In modern times, scholars are debating how to define religion. Some prefer to stick with a substantive definition, in which membership is determined by the presence of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Others, however, are increasingly arguing that this approach is too restrictive and needs to be replaced by a functional definition, in which membership is determined by the ability of a form of life to function as a uniting force for its members. This kind of approach is sometimes known as a “functionalist” definition, and it is most strongly associated with Emile Durkheim.

Whatever its precise meaning, religion is the voluntary submission of human beings to God or to some other free, supernatural being (or beings). Man recognizes his helplessness and need of Divine assistance. He voluntarily acknowledges this dependence by performing acts of homage. On the subjective side, this subjection stirs up feelings of gratitude, reverence, and love. The recognition of the immensity and power of God arouses fear and awe, while the consciousness of his sinfulness and alienation from God provokes sorrow and yearning for reconciliation.

On the objective side, religion includes such activities as prayer, worship, and observance of religious laws and customs. It may also involve a code of moral conduct and a system of ethics. Depending on the specific religion, there are also various ceremonies and rituals. It is often said that religion is the universal experience and need of human beings, though this is not always proved empirically. It is also widely believed that religion arose from human questions about the world and its operation rather than from any divine revelations. In this view, philosophies such as Buddhism, developed by Siddartha Gautama, and the faiths of Judaism and Islam were the first “natural” religions.