What Is Religion?


Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and actions that teaches its followers how to behave. It provides guidance in moral matters, gives a basis for community and tradition, and may influence health and life expectancy (though this last point is controversial). Religions also deal in what might be called the supernatural or spiritual—with forces or powers beyond the control of humans. They typically have sacred rites or rituals, books and symbols, clergy, holy days, and places and things that are considered sacred.

Some definitions, like the one in Oxford Dictionaries, define religion as belief and worship of a superhuman controlling power; this is known as monotheistic religion. Others, such as the one proposed by Durkheim, define it functionally in terms of a group’s dominant concern that organizes its values. Still others, like Paul Tillich, offer a definition that emphasizes human needs and values.

Historically, religion grew out of curiosity about the big questions of life and death and fear of uncontrollable forces. It also developed out of a desire for hope—for immortality, a kind creator who would watch over humanity, and an ultimate meaning to life.

Over time, these different elements combined to create complex religious beliefs. Tribal totems and ancestor worship evolved into the belief in guardian and protective gods, and these in turn led to monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. More recently, science has helped people see that other aspects of the universe are governed by natural laws. This has prompted a shift away from a faith-based theory of the world to a philosophy-based theory, which might be defined as a set of principles and practices.