What is Religion?

Religion is a broad and often controversial subject. Depending on one’s perspective, it can be either a collection of spiritual beliefs and practices or something that is universal to all people. Throughout history, it has served both as a source of social unity and cohesion as well as a catalyst for conflict and violence.

Many scholars have defined religion functionally in terms of the functions that it serves to its followers. Emile Durkheim’s definition, for example, focuses on the way that religious beliefs and rituals create solidarity among its members. This approach has been augmented by the development of social science approaches to culture, including ethnography and anthropology.

Others have focused on the innate spiritual dimensions of religion, such as the British philosopher James G. Frazer’s statement that religion is the belief in “powers higher than man.” The work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a specialist in religion and culture, takes a more holistic view and tries to describe how a religion affects its followers in their everyday lives.

Other scholars have criticized this concept of religion as being too narrow and ideological. They have argued that it fails to recognize the way in which a religion influences the physical culture of its followers, including their habits, physical culture, and social structures. They have proposed adding a fourth C to the traditional model, which would be the community that a religion forms. Catherine Albanese and Ninian Smart have both used this model to develop their own theories of religion.