What Is Religion?


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as sacred, holy, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In some traditions it includes a set of beliefs and practices, while in others it is more generalized to include how people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fates. In any case, religion has shaped people’s lives throughout history and continues to do so today.

The term religion was first used by philosophers to describe a particular group of ideas and beliefs about life, the universe, and humankind. It is derived from the Latin words religio (respect for what is sacred) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation). The word has since been applied to all social phenomena that are held to be religious by a significant grouping of people within a culture or society. A central question in the study of religion is how to define it, and this has given rise to different approaches to the field.

One approach is to use functionalist definitions that seek to find ways to categorize phenomena. Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is a classic example. Another approach is to use verstehen methods to grasp religion as it occurs in particular social worlds. This is implicit in ethnographic and participant observation research. It also underpins the work of Jeanette Seligman, who describes religion as an imaginative enterprise that addresses “the unfulfilled promises of life” (Hervieu-Leger 1989:73).

Functionalism is not without problems. It tends to treat all aspects of human behavior as equally valid, and it can result in a lowest common denominator definition of what is truly religious that offers little insight into the unique features of religion. It also tends to equate religion with organized groups, which is not necessarily the case, especially in cases of ad hoc or informal religiosity.

Anthropologists believe that religion developed in part out of prehistoric people’s attempts to control uncontrollable elements of their environment, such as the weather or the success of hunting expeditions. Early humans tried to make these elements subject to their will through magic or by appealing to gods or spirits.

Modern societies still rely on religion for guidance in dealing with such issues as poverty, inequality, and war. Religions have provided the basis for many educational institutions, hospitals, and social welfare networks. They have also helped to foster peace and good will in the face of violence and natural disasters, as well as to inspire great artistic and scientific achievements. Yet, despite its role in these areas, religion has also been responsible for much of the oppression and suffering of the human race. Religious differences can lead to hatred and violence, which is why it is important to understand what is really at stake in these conflicts. Moreover, the search for a definition of religion must not be carried out in a manner that ignores these complexities and limits the scope of its application.

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