What Is Religion?

Religion is people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In religious contexts, this relates to the belief in gods or spirits; in more humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion, it may relate to the broader community of humans or the natural world. Generally, religions deal with ultimate concerns about the fate of the souls of human beings—whether in a literal sense, with the concept of heaven after death as in Christianity or in a more symbolic sense, with the goal of reaching an end to suffering such as nirvana as in Buddhism. Religions usually also deal with moral issues through the development of codes of conduct, or by organizing societies into hierarchies where certain persons are invested with religious and moral authority. Many religions have rituals and texts that are regarded as sacred, and they often organize festivals, places, symbols, and days as sacred to their followers.

Most people around the world believe in some form of religion. The most common beliefs include the belief that a supernatural agency created the universe; that at the time of death, each person’s soul will separate from their body and go on to another dimension; that there is a judgment after death concerning a human being’s moral worthiness for a reward or punishment; and that there is only one life for each individual.

For many people, their religion is an essential part of their identity and provides meaning to their lives. It is often a source of pride, a sense of belonging, and a source of inspiration. Religions are also sources of hope and provide comfort in times of distress.

Whether or not they explicitly mention it, every culture has some sort of religion, a set of beliefs and practices that have evolved within the context of the particular cultural group from which it originated. Anthropologists recognize that many of the characteristics that we commonly associate with religion—belief in a deity, adherence to a code of behavior, or participation in a set of rituals—are present in more than one culture.

The term ‘religion’ is now more often used as a broad taxonomic category for a wide range of social formations that are not necessarily organized into the so-called ‘world religions’ of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. However, the concept is not without controversy and there are various ways that it can be defined. It is sometimes analyzed by looking at the properties that distinguish it from other social phenomena—as in the polythetic approach of Rodney Needham or the ‘decomposition’ of J. Z. Smith (see KS1 for more information on these approaches). It is also possible to take a functional approach to religion, in which it is seen as a way of organizing societies into hierarchies or as a means of coping with the many limitations that stand across the project of human existence. It is not possible, though, to define religion either substantively or functionally in a way that will be valid in all cultures.