What Is Religion?


Religion is, broadly speaking, people’s relation to that which they regard as sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In religious traditions, these concerns may be embodied in the beliefs and practices of deities or spirits; in more humanistic and naturalistic forms of religion, they may be embodied in the relationships and attitudes toward broader humanity or the natural world.

Many theories of religion seek to explain the nature of these relationships and attitudes, or the function that they serve for a society. Emile Durkheim, for example, stressed that religion serves a variety of important social functions, such as motivating people to work for social change and promoting moral and psychological well-being. Other sociological perspectives focus on the inequality and conflict that religion can reinforce or perpetuate, or the ways in which it can motivate hostility and violence between groups.

In the past, most academic discussions of Religion have focused on monothetic or polythetic approaches that determine religion’s membership in a specific class by virtue of whether it contains certain belief systems or practices. But more recently there has been a movement towards what might be called a “functional” definition of religion. The functional approach drops the belief-based requirement and defines religion by the distinctive way it functions in a person’s life—playing down (though not eliminating) the cognitive element, as in the case of William James’ romantic suggestion that Religion is a particular feeling with no cognition at all.