What Is Religion?

Religion (also religio, religioni, or règiment) is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that bind people in a bond of loyalty. It is the highest form of devotion that people can give to something or someone. It is the ultimate goal for many of them, as well as their means to attain it. It is not only a belief in god or in life after death, but also a system of values and principles that people hold as morally binding.

Humans live as project (towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures), and religions make it easier to evaluate and act toward those goals, whatever they are. They protect and transmit the means to achieve these goals, some of which are proximate and can be attained within this life – a better, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living – others are ultimate and have to do with the final condition of any given person or even of the cosmos itself.

Edward Tylor’s minimal definition of religion focuses on belief in spiritual beings; Paul Tillich’s functional criterion distinguishes between religion and non-religion, by focusing on ultimate concern; but such single-criterion, monothetic definitions miss the point. It is much more useful to think about the family resemblance of religious phenomena rather than try to pin down a precise definition. To do this, we have to recognize the inescapable material reality that a social kind is comprised of the body, habits, and physical culture that makes up its members.