What Is Religion?
Religion is a broad term for people’s beliefs, values, and practices concerning what they hold sacred or consider to be spiritually significant. It is sometimes used to refer to people’s relations with god(s), spirits, or other supernatural entities; in less theistic forms of religion it may include concerns about human life and death, broader natural world, or social structures. One way to think about religion is in terms of three dimensions: the true, the beautiful, and the good; however, Ninian Smart argues that we need a fourth C: community.
Traditionally, scholars have analyzed religion by focusing on its texts and their interpretation; the life stories of famous religious or spiritual figures like saints, prophets, and other “spiritual superstars” (and the scholars who study them); and ritualized behaviors like prayer, meditation, fasting, sacraments, and the observance of holidays. These approaches are well suited to studying traditional religions, especially Abrahamic monotheisms, but they have not done much to illuminate how religion works in the lives of most people in the modern world.
In recent years, many scholars have pushed back on the substantive definitions of religion that are based on belief in distinctive kinds of reality and have turned instead to functionalist approaches. Emile Durkheim’s approach is a classic example; it defines religion as whatever system of practices unite people into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities. However, this new focus on function has created some controversy. In particular, some have argued that such a focus obscures the fact that religion is a socially constructed category whose modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism.