What Is Religion?

Religion is the system of beliefs, values, practices and traditions that a group of people share. Millions of people all over the world adhere to one or more religions and follow the principles set out in their holy books. Religion is also a place where people go to find community, structure, moral guidance and hope in their lives.

The word religion comes from the Latin word religio meaning “to bind, connect.” While many religious traditions have different beliefs about how God created the universe and human life, they all share some common characteristics. A religious belief system typically includes prayer, rituals and scriptures. It is also characterized by moral guidelines that outline the relationships believers are expected to cultivate with themselves, each other, outsiders and the supernatural world.

Historically, scholars have defined what constitutes religion by considering its social and cultural functions. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as the way a society organizes its solidarity. Another way to think about religion is through a phenomenological approach, which examines how the participants feel about their faith and what meanings they attach to it.

In the twentieth century, a different way to define religion emerged. This newer way looks at the axiological function of religion, which is how it influences the beliefs and values of its followers. This functional definition is most closely aligned with Paul Tillich’s 1957 formulation, which defines religion as whatever system of values helps a person navigate life (whether or not these values involve belief in unusual realities).

A third way to define religion focuses on the role it plays in the maintenance of a particular viewpoint. This is often called a stipulative definition of religion because it stipulates the qualities that something must have in order to be considered a religion. This is sometimes contrasted with the lexical definition, which simply defines religion in terms of its common usage (as in a dictionary).

Some people today reject the concept of religion altogether. This view argues that it is unfair to use the term religion to describe phenomena that have no discernible cause or effect. In some cases, this is a reaction to the idea that a definition of religion is an ideological construction that serves to justify certain forms of social control. Other times, it is a rejection of the notion that there is such a thing as an objective definition of religion.