What Is Religion?

Religion is the set of values that people hold most dear, and for which they are prepared to live and even die. It includes all the ways that they value life, orient themselves to it, and express, protect, and transmit their valuations. It covers everything from proximate goals that can be achieved in this life (a wiser, more fruitful, charitable, or successful way of living) to the final condition of this or any other person, and indeed of the universe itself.

Human beings are conscious that they exist in time, and that there is a future, but they know very little about it. Religions make it easier for them to live with this uncertainty, by identifying and protecting the means of attaining their most important goals. Some of these are proximate, within this life or in the process of rebirth; others are ultimate, in relation to the final condition of this or any other human being, and perhaps of the universe itself.

There is a wide range of definitions of religion, which are influenced by culture and history, and the context in which they are expressed. Historically, the term was derived from religio, a Latin word that roughly translated as scrupulous devotion. It was later retooled as a social genus, and then again as a type of social practice. As a result, its senses have shifted over time, and there is now no universally accepted meaning for the term.

For a long time, scholars were content to treat religion as a phenomenon that could be defined only by its cultural or historical context. This approach made it possible to develop a comparative treatment of religion, which prepared the way for more modern developments.

In the early twentieth century, a number of philosophers began to take religious matters seriously. This “reflexive turn” included such figures as Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Jacques Derrida. It also led to the development of a number of religious studies departments and journals.

Since the 1960s, a number of different approaches to studying religion have emerged. These have varied from a classical, monist approach that assumes that any given instance of a religion has one defining property, to functional and postmodern approaches that are less concerned with definition. Regardless of the specific approach, most scholars agree that religion is an important social phenomenon that deserves serious study and evaluation. In this article, we will examine some of the major issues in the field. We will consider the nature of religion, the relationship between religion and science, and how a concept like religion should be analyzed and understood. The article will conclude with some suggestions for further reading and research. Throughout, the author makes an effort to avoid stipulative definitions that would reduce the richness of a discussion of religion. However, we do not shy away from critiquing such stipulative definitions when they are used for narrow, utilitarian purposes. We will, therefore, adopt a pragmatic policy by treating all traditions that are widely recognized as religions as being religions.