What Is Religion?


Religions serve as cultural frameworks that bind and organize the lives of two-thirds of all people. They are the source of many of their greatest works of art, architecture, music, drama, literature and poetry, and philosophies; of most of their social structures, including marriage, law and order, education, economics, politics, medicine, and psychotherapy; and of all of their worldviews. Totally secular approaches to many issues — public policy, education, psychotherapy, even science itself — ignore or misunderstand this reality and thus are often ineffective.

Religions provide a way to deal with the enormous limitations that confront human beings in this life. They offer maps of time and space, giving a conceptual framework to life in which people can make sense of their own birth and childhood, death and old age, sexuality, corporeality, nature, the cosmos, God and the Church, and heaven and hell (cf. histoire des mentalités).

They give their adherents a framework within which to understand the events of history: why the world is the way it is, why good and evil exist, what will happen in the future, and how to repair and deal with wrongdoing in the present. Religious histories can also serve to help us understand how different societies dealt with birth, death, and other universal problems such as war, hunger, and poverty.

There are many ways to define religion, and most of them have been “monothetic,” meaning that they operate with the classical assumption that every instance of a given concept will share a defining property. But more recent approaches have rejected that assumption, and have analyzed religion as a complex of different dimensions: the practical and ritual; the experiential and emotional; the narrative or mythical; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and moral; and the cultural, including art, architecture, and sacred places.

Some scholars of religion have taken the view that these different dimensions are interrelated, and that there is no such thing as a pure religion. For them, all religions are real and, in their own way, all are true. This approach, based on the work of Émile Durkheim and Paul Tillich, is sometimes called social constructionism. Other scholars, however, have gone farther than this, and have argued that, even if we reject the idea of an essence of religion, there is still a real “religion” out there, namely, whatever a society’s dominant concerns are, and whether or not those concern beliefs in supernatural beings. This is the approach that Ninian Smart has advanced, and it is known as phenomenology. It is sometimes referred to as the prototype theory of concepts. It has been criticized as a kind of pseudo-reductionism. For this and other reasons, it has not become the standard definition of religion in the academy. However, its influence is growing. It has led to the development of a variety of analytical techniques. This book introduces and discusses these new approaches. It also considers some of the more traditional forms of religion, such as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.