What Is Religion?


Religion consists of human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It encompasses the way that people deal with ultimate concerns about life and death and the fate of the world. It also includes the way that people cope with the sense of mystery that surrounds human existence. In mystical traditions, it also includes the belief that a supreme deity has created and is sustaining the universe and in which they find meaning for their own lives. In more humanistic or naturalistic traditions, it also includes the way that people cope with their concerns about the broader human community and the natural environment.

Many scholars have sought to define religion in terms of beliefs or, alternatively, of any subjective mental states. This approach can be criticized as reducing the study of religion to the comparison of different religions normatively (though such evaluation is unavoidable for philosophical and theological systems). However, it is difficult to construct a clear definition that will allow one to distinguish what is genuinely religious from what is not.

A number of sociologists have argued that it is impossible to have a substantive definition because there are so many different forms of religion. Nevertheless, they have developed formal strategies that attempt to determine what makes something a religion in some general sense. For example, some have used the structure of related discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a superempirical, cosmic-level order as definitive of religion (see, for example, Berger 1974). Others have rejected notions of thing-hood and have characterized religion in functional terms, arguing that it names a form of life with a certain set of properties.