What Is Religion?


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is also the way in which people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. These concerns may be expressed in terms of relations with gods or spirits, or they may be oriented toward the broader human community or the natural world. In addition, some religions establish texts deemed to have scriptural authority and invest individuals with religious or moral authority. The form and structure of a religion is extremely varied. It may be highly organized and hierarchical, as in Roman Catholicism, with a central bureaucracy and clear hierarchy of Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, laity, and so forth; or it may be very large-scale and loosely structured, with little overall coherence or hierarchy: Hinduism is such an example.

Most religions are rooted in culture and, therefore, they provide an important means of shaping culture. They may be reflected in festivals, ceremonies, music and dance, literature, and art, marriages and funerals, and other aspects of life. Religions may also support group cohesion and social interaction by providing a common ground for values and beliefs, by offering opportunities for socialization and friendship, and by fostering feelings of belonging and identity. They may also offer a source of moral guidance and psychological and emotional comfort.

Many people have a very strong attachment to their religions, and are strongly committed to the beliefs and practices of those religions. This can be a source of great strength and personal fulfillment, but it can also be a source of stress and conflict when people disagree about what their religions mean or about how to practice them.

For some people, especially in the West, it is easy to dismiss a religion as nothing more than a silly myth or a joke; but it is important to remember that there is a serious basis for even those religions that are primarily used as punchlines. It is important to study the history of a religion, and to talk to scholars both from within and outside that religion, before making up one’s mind about whether it is valid or not.

The academic study of religion is multidisciplinary, encompassing such fields as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. A good place to start is Why Study Religion, a website sponsored by the American Academy of Religion that provides some reading suggestions for each of the major academic approaches to studying religion. In particular, phenomenological and ethnographic approaches are especially useful for understanding how people experience religion. See also the links on the left for more about these different approaches to studying religion.