What Is Religion?


Religion is a broad concept encompassing the inner world of beliefs and feelings that form a spiritual community. It involves devotion to a supernatural being or concept, worship, moral conduct, and participation in religious institutions. It also addresses questions about the nature and origin of the universe, life, death, and personal meaning. In addition, it includes a range of spiritual and ethical concerns, such as justice, peace, love, and compassion. In this sense, religion has been central to the development of human culture and societies throughout history. It has served as both a source of unity and a catalyst for division. It has contributed to the advancement of knowledge and shaped arts, music, and technology. It has also influenced political systems and governments, sometimes in collaboration with, and other times in conflict with, the power of government.

There is considerable variety in the way that different religions define their own concepts of religion. Some, such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, emphasize the importance of the individual’s relationship with God and the role of scripture in the lives of believers. Others focus on social and cultural aspects of the religion, such as morality, tolerance, and conformity. Still others place a greater emphasis on inner experiences, such as spirituality and feelings of awe and reverence.

In general, however, there is a consensus among scholars that the word “religion” has a broader than strictly academic meaning. The majority of the world’s population subscribes to a religion, and many people use the term in this more general sense when describing their own beliefs and practices. In fact, the word has become so entwined with the everyday lives of so many people that it is difficult to separate out its various meanings and applications.

Generally speaking, the most important element of religion is the recognition on the part of man of his dependence upon some free, powerful, and superhuman being or beings for his own existence. The feeling of dependence is accompanied by the persuasion that man, if he makes a proper effort, can bring himself into friendly and beneficent communion with the deity or divinities to whom he feels this need.

This basic definition of religion does not exclude certain ideologies that are based on a belief in the supernatural but do not have the features of a true religion, such as communism or fascism. Moreover, attempts to limit the definition of religion to a more narrow concept, such as that of the German American theologian Paul Tillich, run the risk of reducing the study of religions to the mere comparison of a lowest common denominator.

In contrast, a functionalist approach to the definition of religion views it as the collective organization of people in a particular society around shared values that provide meaning and structure to their lives. Such values include mutual respect, tolerance, and a sense of awe and reverence. It is this more inclusive view that is most relevant to the current debate on religion in our societies.