What Is Religion?

Religion is a complex of beliefs, values and practices. It involves cultural systems, worldviews, texts, prophecies, revelations, morals, sermons, rituals and symbols. It includes a variety of beliefs, including a belief in supernatural beings and powers. It also includes a variety of activities, such as prayer, meditation, shamanism, art, and feasts. Some of these are verbal, but most are non-verbal and involve gestures, breathing, and other bodily responses. In its most general sense, a religion is an organized system of beliefs and practices that provides guidance in life’s most important decisions, and a guide to life’s ultimate goals.

Humans are constituted by a need for protection and a drive to explore their potentialities, both in terms of the brain’s capacity to create new ideas and the body’s ability to discover what it is capable of doing. The early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that are called religions are therefore the very foundation of people’s explorations of human possibility.

These explorations are not just the stuff of philosophy or religious studies, but are at the heart of all forms of human life. As a result, there are countless religions in the world today, and they all provide people with a framework within which to understand their lives and make sense of the world. This framework enables them to develop a range of tools and practices for protecting themselves from the dangers of their environment, for making meaning of events that have occurred in their lives, and for navigating the vicissitudes of desire and conflict.

People who engage in these explorations, often referred to as “religious” or “religious” behaviour, are doing so not just scrupulously and morally, but with devotion, generosity, ecstasy, superstitiously, puritanically and ritualistically. They are doing so with the conviction that these acts will make their lives, and the lives of those around them, happier and more fulfilling.

The concept of religion is not an easy one to define. It has been debated in anthropology, history, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, sociology and most recently cognitive science. As such, the field is diverse and there are many different definitions of what a religion is, with some being monothetic (focused on only one criterion) and others polythetic. This article aims to orient readers in an ongoing multidisciplinary debate by providing a brief historical account of the origins of the term religion, a taxonomy of the various kinds of definition (including single criterion, substantive, functional, mixed and family resemblance), and some discussion and criticism.