What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, practices and ethics. It is a fundamental component of many societies, and influences political decisions in many countries around the world.

The term “religion” is defined in different ways, and it can be a substantive or functional criterion for distinguishing religion from non-religion (see below). One approach, for example, involves defining the concept as containing a belief in a particular kind of entity, such as spiritual beings, a supreme deity, or judgment after death.

Others take a functional approach, identifying a distinctive role that a form of life plays in people’s lives. The definition offered by Emile Durkheim, for example, turns on social functions that reinforce solidarity and stability among members of a community, even if those members do not believe in any unusual realities.

A third approach, in contrast to the other two, identifies religion as a way of organizing values and providing orientation for life. Paul Tillich, for example, suggests that the most important function of religion is to organize a person’s ultimate concerns, whether those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities or not.

Some scholars, like David Smith and Talal Asad, reject the idea that religion has an essence. They still accept that the word “religion” is a useful label for something operating in the world, though they may argue that the concept is too narrow.

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