What Is Religion?

Religion is a system of beliefs, feelings, and practices that gives its followers a sacred object (or objects) to worship, a moral code of behavior, and a way to understand their own existence and the world around them. Most religions also involve a belief in something beyond the material world—something spiritual or supernatural.

Religions may be large-scale and tightly organized, with a central institution, a hierarchy of clergy, religious orders of laity, and a variety of doctrinal, ritual, and moral subsystems. Or they may be extremely loosely structured, with almost no overall organization at all—like Hinduism. Either way, all religions deal with what humans call “the supernatural” or “the spiritual.”

In addition to its doctrinal and ritual aspects, a religion typically involves some form of moral teachings, usually with a focus on morality and good or bad behavior. Moreover, all religions have some element of community. Whether it is a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or guru-base, religions provide a sense of belonging and community for many people in the world.

There are many theories about the origins of religion. Some anthropologists, for example, believe that religion evolved in response to either a biological or a cultural need. They believe that humans became self-aware and realized that they would die, so they created religion to give them a hope of an afterlife.

Other scholars disagree. They argue that religion is a complex phenomenon, and it is difficult to define. Rather than trying to pin down a definition of religion, they recommend that researchers study religions as they occur in the real world. This way, researchers can make informed decisions about what to study and how to describe religion in their reports and papers.