What Is Religion?

Religion is a social phenomenon consisting of belief systems and practices. Its defining features include veneration of things considered sacred, absolute, or spiritual, and the use of texts with scriptural authority. In some traditions, this veneration extends to beings deemed to be gods or spirits; in others it may encompass aspects of nature or human life. Regardless of the precise contents, religions share certain fundamental concerns: they offer people meaning and purpose, reinforce their sense of identity and belonging, provide them with moral rules to live by, encourage mental and emotional well-being, and motivate their efforts to achieve positive social change.

For a long time, scholars have used the term “religion” to identify specific religious beliefs and practices. Today, however, it is more common to see the concept used to categorize broad genus-level phenomena: Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so forth.

In philosophy, the notion of religion has been defended by many important thinkers. The vast majority of those who have written about it can be classified as continental philosophers, though even some of the most influential modern Western philosophers have addressed the topic (e.g., Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir).

Some scholars, such as Rodney Needham, have argued that treating religion as a set of beliefs or subjective states reflects a Protestant bias. They have urged that we move away from such substantive definitions and toward a functional approach: one that defines a religion as whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities. This type of functional definition is exemplified by the work of Emile Durkheim.