What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex set of beliefs, values, practices, and institutions. It is a fundamental feature of many cultures and permeates the lives of billions of people around the world. It can inspire moral and ethical conduct, unite groups into a common moral community, form a basis for social organization, provide a sense of identity, and shape the meaning of life and death.

Religious beliefs typically focus on spiritual and moral concerns. In some traditions, these concerns may be expressed in terms of one’s relation to something regarded as holy, sacred, absolute, or divine; in others they are more concerned with human relationships and the natural world. Most religions also have specific texts that are deemed scripture and people who are invested with some sort of spiritual or moral authority.

A common argument against the concept of religion is that it is a Western invention created by missionaries and colonizers as a tool for their own purposes. However, such a view of the origin of a concept obscures the fact that, like most abstract concepts, it has come to play a powerful role in our global world.

Some scholars have favored a more polythetic definition, treating religion as a set of behaviors that varies from culture to culture. They argue that narrow definitions such as the belief in supernatural beings exclude too much and thus undermine the concept’s utility. Other scholars have taken a functional approach, defining religion in terms of the unique roles that certain beliefs and practices play in one’s life.

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