What Is Religion?

Religion is one of the world’s most widespread phenomena, a fact which makes it an interesting subject to study. It can be studied from many angles, combining textual, historical, linguistic, philosophical and other approaches. Psychologists (who study the human mind) argue that humans have a deep need for spiritual experiences and the rituals and beliefs of a religion can help meet these needs. Neuroscientists have even discovered circuitry in the brain that seems to be designed for religious experience.

Religions differ greatly in the beliefs and practices they promote, but most have certain common characteristics. For example, most religions have a belief in some form of salvation. This can be seen as a literal sense with an afterlife or, in a more symbolic way, such as the idea of nirvana in Buddhism. Religions also have sacred writings, places of worship and a group of people called the clergy to lead them. Many religions have myth and symbol, as well as a moral code that guides their followers in their daily lives.

While there is much debate over what exactly constitutes a religion, most scholars accept that the concept is useful. Some use a substantive definition, such as Emile Durkheim’s, in which religion is defined as whatever system of practices unite a group into a moral community (whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities). Others reject “thing-hood”, using functional or utilitarian approaches such as that of Paul Tillich (1957), in which he defines religion as any dominant concern that organizes a person’s values.