What Is Religion?

Religion is the belief in the supernatural. It is also a set of values and practices that people use to guide their lives and give meaning to their existence. Most people are religious in some way, and they are willing to live by and even die for the ideas they find most valuable.

The word religion has become a broad category for practices that differ greatly in their beliefs, but they are all organized and have some sort of rituals. Religion also has a sacred book or books, some sort of authority that governs it, and places, symbols, and days that are important to believers. Most religions deal in some way with salvation, either a literal one in which they believe that people can go to heaven after death or in which they believe that it is possible to reach nirvana, an end to suffering.

For a long time, anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures) have been interested in tribal and “primitive” societies to try to figure out how the concept of religion evolved in prehistory. More recently, however, they have been more focused on functional and structural accounts of religion in society and have largely given up the quest for a tidy account of its origins.

Some scholars, such as Talcott Smith, have argued that the definition of religion is constructed and that the shifting nature of what we think of as religion reveals its political character. Other scholars, such as Edgar Smith Asad, have sought to pull the camera back and to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept of religion distort our grasp of the historical realities it names.