The Definition of Religion

Religion is man’s voluntary subordination of himself to the will of God. It is perfected in heaven, where angels and saints love, praise and adore God and live in absolute conformity to His holy will. It exists on earth as a system of beliefs and ritual behavior. It is not a subject for comparative study in that it cannot be judged normatively (a task proper to philosophy and theology) but is best studied phenomenologically. Such an approach, however, involves a number of assumptions that are not universally accepted.

It assumes that religious beliefs and practices are generally held by all people, regardless of race, creed or culture. It also assumes that all religions are in some way “true,” and that those which are not true are false. The latter assumption, in particular, has been the basis of many attempts to define religion objectively. The problem of defining religion is even more difficult for philosophers than for historians because, as a matter of fact, religious belief and practice are remarkably diverse.

The most common definitions of religion include the assertion that it answers psychological needs in humans. Psychologists and neuroscientists argue that certain parts of the brain are wired to experience religion, and that some human beings need this type of religious experience in order to feel they have meaning and direction in life.

Another view of religion is that it is a kind of social genus. This view suggests that, although there are differences among religions, all religions tend to serve a similar function: social control. This function is accomplished, for example, by providing figures of authority, such as a Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests and laity; by establishing a moral hierarchy based on the ten commandments and other ethical standards; by imposing certain social customs, such as marriage and divorce; by providing social and welfare services, including hospitals and schools.

Other scholars have tried to define religion in more practical terms, arguing that it is an attitude or feeling rather than a set of beliefs or practices. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argues that all feelings are essentially religious in nature, though he admits that some, such as fear and hate, are more resonant with religiosity than others.

Finally, there is the more modest view that religions are ways of reaching goals which transcend any specific organization. These goals may be proximate, dealing with a better and more fruitful way of living in this life; or they may be ultimate, concerned with the final condition of this or any other individual or of the cosmos itself. In either case, the health of a religion lies in its awareness that it is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Religions therefore promote and transmit the means to these ends, and encourage a sense of need for the spiritual guidance that they provide. In this sense, they are a source of hope. Humanity needs this hope because it provides an underlying motivation for ethical conduct, the knowledge of which is a major prerequisite for the existence of a just world.