What Is Religion?

Religion is the way people deal with ultimate concerns about life and death.

In many traditions, this relates to their relationship with or attitude toward gods, spirits, or the natural world; in others it reflects a more humanistic outlook.

There is a tremendous variety in the kinds of religious experiences humans have, such as visions, dreams, creative inspiration, contact with other beings, revelation of meaning, truth, or significance, emotional connections, and intangible encounters that escape language.

The earliest forms of religion developed in the context of natural forces, especially the sun and moon, seasons, rivers, and fertility. Later, deities evolved from ancestors and animal totems that unified clans or tribes.

Sociological functional definitions of religion have been traced to Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them ([1912] 1964).

Functionalism, which is often seen as a reaction to the idea that humans are passive social actors whose actions are directed by their society, focuses on social actors’ use of religion as a mechanism to make sense of societal expectations and normative prescriptions.

Substantive definitions, on the other hand, focus on the actual beliefs, personal experience, and dichotomy between supernatural and non-supernatural that form the basis of a religion. This is particularly true of Christianity, where religion is seen as a matter of belief in God, a divine being with authority over the universe.