What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad term that encompasses beliefs, stories, and inner sentiments that can vary widely in their details among believers. Religious people often have a deep desire to feel connected with something bigger than themselves, and they may believe that the universe is a divine entity with a plan for mankind that includes salvation from the sufferings of life in this world and nirvana after death. Religion can also include an organized system of worship, sacred rites and rituals, sacred books, a clergy or priesthood that oversees the faith, and places, symbols, and days that are considered holy to its followers.

The word “religion” derives from the Latin religio, which means a feeling of devotion or a sense of obligation. The concept of religion is so vast and diverse, however, that it is difficult to define in a way that would be valid for all scholars and all believers.

One school of thought, which originated from Emile Durkheim, argues that religion is anything that gives individuals a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives by providing them with a group to which they can belong and with a set of rules by which they can judge the morality of their actions. Another approach, which comes from anthropology, is that religions are socially constructed and evolved to meet certain survival needs in particular environments. For example, some religions developed in hunter-gatherer societies as a means of unifying people in the face of competition from other groups with different resources.

In modern times, the term is most commonly used to refer to a class of belief systems that are typically distinguished by their concern with ultimate concerns and an emphasis on their place in the world and in history. Some scholars argue that this class can be further divided into a number of categories, including those which are referred to as world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), a more global category which includes regional variations, and others still which are referred to as non-religious beliefs.

While it is possible to construct a taxonomy of religious practices, many scholars argue that such an approach will miss important details and will not capture the essence of what religion is. Instead, a polythetic approach is more useful, in which various characteristics are looked at in parallel to each other and compared with the behavior of actual religions. This method enables scholars to identify common patterns that can lead to explanatory theories.

While the three-sided model of the true, beautiful, and good remains a popular account of what constitutes religion, some scholars have proposed adding a fourth C, for community. This reflects the importance of social cohesion that can be provided by religion, and which can sometimes have negative effects on society. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the concept of religion has an essential role to play in human lives. Whether religion is defined as a source of love, compassion, and goodness, or as a source of hate, intolerance, and fear, it is universally recognized as having a profound impact on the world.