What Is Religion?

Religion is a complex of beliefs and practices. Its definition is debated. Some scholars treat it as a social genus, a category that appears in all cultures (though the particular beliefs and practices may be different). Others treat it as a specific kind of reality, something that is inevitable in the human condition. Others, like Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich, take a more functional approach, defining it as whatever systems of practices unite people into a moral community (whether or not they involve belief in unusual realities).

The word “religion” is often used to refer to those things that help people cope with the uncertainty of life by putting them in touch with some sort of larger truth. Such religions deal with the supernatural or spiritual—about forces and powers beyond the control of humans. They also usually involve a concept of salvation—be it in the form of eternal life as with Christianity, or some other version such as enlightenment, peace, or emptiness (see Buddhism).

There are many ways of being religious. Religious people can behave devotedly, generously, ecstatically, prayerfully, sacrificially, puritanically, ritualistically, or in any number of other ways. They do these things for a variety of reasons—to achieve health and well-being, to gain social connection, to establish a moral framework for life, or to provide comfort in times of stress.

Most religions, however, share some basic features. They usually have a set of rules that determine what is acceptable or not. They usually have sacred rites and rituals, sacred writings, a place or sites of worship, and some way of making their members feel a part of a special community. They have codes of ethical behavior, and often a clergy or priesthood to lead them in their beliefs. They also have some notion of a god, goddess, or spirit and the means to communicate with them.

The range of the term is wide, and that has led to much debate about how it should be defined. In general, though, scholars have tended to avoid giving it a substantive meaning and instead use it as a family-resemblance concept. This allows us to look at all sorts of ideas and behaviors that are not necessarily associated with a particular religion and to consider them together, rather than separately. It also allows us to examine how the terms “religion” and “theology” are used in common language, which is important because both words have become a part of the lexicon of everyday life. This article will address two philosophical issues that arise when we discuss the contested concept of religion: first, how the concept of religion has evolved over time, and second, whether it is possible to have a necessary and sufficient definition for the term. We will conclude by examining how the semantic range of the concept of religion can be understood in the same way as other abstract concepts we use to sort cultural types, such as “literature” and “democracy.” Using these tools, we can begin to understand why the concept of religion is so contested and debated.