What Is Religion?

Religion is an important part of many people’s lives. It gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. It can also comfort them in times of trouble. But what exactly is it? Many scholars have tried to answer this question. Some have defined it in functional terms: as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities). Others, such as Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have tried to explain religion as an emotional experience of transcendence.

The main function of religion, however, seems to be the satisfaction of a deeply felt need. In the lower grades of culture, where physical laws are poorly understood, man feels helpless before the forces of nature and needs the assurance that a superior power, a God, can control these powers for his weal or woe.

Religious worship, rites, and practices may express a wide range of emotions, from awe and fear to gratitude and love. The gaining of benefits in response to prayer prompts thankfulness; the immensity of God’s power and wisdom provokes awe; the awareness that one has offended or estranged God calls for repentance and forgiveness.

The study of religions must not be content to examine them normatively, a task which is proper and unavoidable for philosophy and theology, but must seek to map their contents phenomenologically. This has been the approach of the history of religions, which rejects the pretense that different religions can be judged and compared normatively and instead studies them as cultural phenomena.