What Is Religion?


The word religion evokes an idea of belief in a higher power. But there are many kinds of religions and they have different characteristics.

A variety of theories exist for how to define religion. Some, like philosophers and scientists, look at religion as a social phenomenon. Others, including sociologists and psychologists, focus on its inner workings. Still others see religion as a set of beliefs and behaviors that unite people into a moral community. And some, such as theologians and anthropologists, focus on its cultural origins.

Substantive definitions seek to establish what it is about religion that sets it apart from other ideas or activities. They include such categories as the existence of sacred places and objects, a code of moral behavior, an afterlife, supernatural beings, and a hierarchy of gods or goddesses. Most religious systems have all of these features.

Functionalists, on the other hand, use a set of criteria to decide what is a religion. These criterion, often based on the work of Clifford Geertz, include a belief in a transcendent reality, a moral code, and an organized system for transmitting values and norms from person to person.

Most religions, whether they include belief in a transcendent reality or not, aim to make human life a bit easier. That is why religions often include proximate goals (a wiser, more charitable, more effective way of living), and ultimate goals which designate either the eventual fate of an individual or the future of the universe.

In addition to these broader purposes, most religions have also been forms of entertainment and of fun. Long before Hollywood began dreaming in dollars, ancient religions were staging spectacles, heightened by terror and enhanced by high degrees of audience participation.

Religions also provide the basis for a whole range of human arts, including music, dance, art, and architecture, as well as many forms of escapist entertainment such as fantasy, dreams, and movies. In a sense, human culture would not be what it is today without religions.

Finally, the emergence of religion as a social kind is sometimes linked to human evolution. For example, some scientists argue that a primitive mind might be more likely to form religions in order to cope with an uncertain and dangerous environment. Psychologists, who study the mind, suggest that religions may answer emotional and psychological needs of humans, such as fear of death and a need for a meaning in life. And neuroscientists who study the brain, claim that there is circuitry in the human nervous system for religious experience. For these reasons, some scholars have suggested that a new way to think of religion is as a set of cognitive and behavioral resources designed to support life in the face of the unknown. This is sometimes referred to as a polythetic theory of religion.