The Essence of Religion

Religious belief and practice are a large part of human life. There is a vast diversity of religions, from Christianity and Islam to Shinto and Hockey. Almost every culture has some religions. Many scholars have wondered whether there is a single essence of religion. This article discusses a number of issues that are likely to come up when trying to sort out an answer to this question.

The first issue is the nature of the concept “religion.” The word came from the Latin religio, which roughly approximates the modern English term, “scrupulousness.” In western antiquity there was a recognition that some people constituted social groups that could be rivals in worshipping different gods or in attempting to achieve transcendent spiritual experiences. The idea of a universally valid religion emerged as a means of distinguishing these different groups.

In addition to the religious experience, there are other elements that may define religion, such as a belief in supernatural beings, moral teachings, sacred texts, and holy places. Some believe that religions owe their origin to the human need for a sense of purpose and a belief in immortality. Others argue that the idea of a universal religion is a product of cultural evolution.

The sociological perspective stresses the functions that religions fulfill in human societies. Emile Durkheim, for example, emphasized the importance of community and the social bond that religion provides to humans. He also pointed out that, in some cases, religion can foster social inequality and social conflict. The history of the world shows that individuals and entire communities can be persecuted, tortured, killed, and go to war over their differences in religion.