What Is Religion?

Religion is one of the most widely used words in the world, with some defining it as anything that influences a person’s worldview, behavior, belief, and approach to Scripture and ethics. Other definitions are narrower, focusing on religious practice or on ritual behavior. Still others are broader and look at the experience of faith, tolerance, culture, morality, authority, deity, salvation, doctrine, and more.

In its subjective side, religion is an affair of the will, of the willing acknowledgement by acts of homage man’s dependence on God, who alone has control of the forces of nature and who can guide them for the good or evil of human beings. Hence it has a virtue: it promotes optimism in the future and induces feelings of hope, joy, confidence, and love, as well as fear of offending God and the desire for reconciliation.

These ideas and more are incorporated into the various forms of religions in the world, including Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, and many others. Yet some critics of the idea of religion suggest that the word has no meaning at all, and that it is simply a term for social phenomena that can be categorized in different ways.

Other critics suggest that to understand religion purely in terms of beliefs and mental states reflects a Protestant bias, and that scholars should shift their attention to analyzing the structures and disciplinary practices of religious communities. However, even this approach is flawed, for it neglects the fact that religion is an essentially social phenomenon, and that, as such, it must be studied through the lens of structure/agency analysis.