What Is Religion?

Religion is an enormously complex and diverse category of beliefs and practices. It is not always easy to distinguish between different religions, even within a given culture. However, it seems that most people in the world today belong to some form of religious organization. It is also generally agreed that the word religion encompasses all the beliefs, practices and values that are thought to be sacred.

Nonetheless, the concept of religion remains controversial. In its most basic sense, it is a social taxon: a way of sorting out some groups of practices that are held to have special significance and value. The term is also used to describe beliefs that are seen as theological: those which have some metaphysical basis, such as the existence of a God or gods. The term religion may be applied to various belief systems which have some degree of universality, such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. However, it is more common to see the concept applied to particular cultural forms which are felt to have a distinctively religious character, such as Judaism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

A number of scholars have sought to provide a general definition for religion. These typically focus on the idea that religion is a’system of beliefs and practices that are regarded as sacred or as having some spiritual significance, and which organizes people’s lives in order to achieve moral and spiritual perfection.’ The term is also often used in a more functional way to refer to the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or offer guidance in life.

Whether viewed functionally or substantively, most of the world’s religions seem to fit this description, and their adherents claim that they do have the power to make human lives a little more predictable. They allow people to recognize the many limitations that stand across the project of their lives and to find ways of dealing with them. They also give a’sense of purpose’ to the human enterprise, and orientate it towards the acknowledged but largely unknown end (or ‘eschatology’) of all things.

Religions also serve to organize and structure societies, establishing codes of recognition and expected behaviour and bringing order to hierarchies. They are also sometimes a force for good, in that they encourage ethical behaviour, promote the welfare of the least fortunate among us, and, in the case of some religions, even bring about peace in the world. Religions are also a source of potential danger, however: intolerance, cruelty, bigotry and self-opinionated nastiness are all found in the ‘luxurious vegetation’ which Ninian Smart described in 1989 as the world’s religions.