What Is Religion?


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual or divine, and which they treat with especial reverence. Religion also concerns human beings’ ultimate questions about their lives and deaths, and how to deal with them. Depending on the tradition, this may be expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods and spirits, a higher power, humankind and the natural world, texts that have a scriptural authority, or rituals and other practices deemed to have spiritual or moral importance.

A number of different theories have been put forward to explain the origin of religion. Anthropologists, for example, have suggested that it arose out of attempts to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting, through magic or supplication. Magic tries to manipulate the environment directly through ritual, whereas supplication tries to influence the environment indirectly through prayer.

Philosophers have analyzed the concept of religion in a similar way, with some using a functional definition that considers a practice to be religious if it brings people together into a community (see Sociology). However, others use a more abstract notion of taxonomy, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein and his idea of family resemblance. These “polythetic” definitions consider all those practices to be part of a single category, religion, and are not so concerned with the question whether or not any of these has a supernatural element.