What Is Religion?


Religion is a wide-ranging set of practices, rituals, prayers and beliefs, and behaviors that people engage in. It also includes the societal structures that support those beliefs and practices, such as churches, temples and mosques. People’s religious beliefs and actions vary greatly from one culture to another, but they all are religion in the sense that they are a form of life organized around some sort of spiritual or moral belief system.

In some contexts, religion refers to a particular faith, such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam. More often, though, it is used as a broad taxon, a way to categorize social formations with similar characteristics. This usage focuses on behavior rather than beliefs and may exclude practices that many people think of as part of their faith but that are not widely practiced outside the religion.

The concept of religion has long been a source of controversy. Some sociologist, such as Emile Durkheim, use a substantive definition that defines religion as whatever practices unite people into a community of moral concern (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Others define the concept in terms of a function it performs, such as Paul Tillich’s (1957) notion that faith is the dominant concern that organizes a person’s values.

In recent decades, scholars have shifted toward using polythetic definitions of religion that avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an essential property. The polythetic approach is not, however, a move away from the assumption that human subjectivity is a product of society. In fact, the anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Adam Smith have argued that an era’s cultural structures are the origin of its religions.