What Is Religion?


Religion is an organized system of beliefs, practices and symbols that facilitates closeness to the transcendent. It also provides a sense of purpose in life, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate individuals to work for positive social change. Religions vary widely, but many share some basic elements. These include: belief in a god or gods; prayer; sacred scriptures and writings; symbols, icons and imagery; sacred objects; worship; and codes of moral conduct.

Religious beliefs and practices are not universal, but most of the world’s 6.5 billion people belong to one of the world’s 20 major religions. There is also a small number of nonbelievers, including atheists and agnostics. But most scholars agree that there is a universal dimension to religion, as exemplified by certain common features:

A major aspect of religion is hope. This hope is raised to a supernatural level because of Divine promises, and it includes a desire for immortality or life after death; a belief in a loving creator who will watch over humanity; and a sense of a destiny and a meaning to life.

Religion also includes a deep-felt need for Divine help and guidance, and the conviction that in many instances Divine help has been provided in answer to prayer. It is accompanied by a sense of guilt for having offended and estranged the Deity, and a yearning for reconciliation. It also involves gratitude for the benefits obtained, awe inspired by the immensity of the Divine power and wisdom, and love springing from the contemplation of the Divine goodness and excellence.

The concept of a god or gods is at the heart of all religions. Often, this god or gods is seen as an all-powerful, omniscient, and almighty being. In some religions, this divinity is a person, while in others it is an impersonal force or principle.

Religion is often compared to philosophy and ethics, but these three categories are distinct. Philosophy and ethics are concerned with the truth and meaning of the universe, whereas religion is primarily concerned with human relationships with the divine.

There are many ways to define religion, and scholars differ in their approaches. Some scholars treat religion as a social genus, which is present in every culture; others view it as panhuman and innate to the human experience. However, no definition can fully account for the diverse range of experiences and needs that religion fulfills. In addition, the lines between religion and culture or tradition or myth are not easily drawn. A useful way to look at religion is to consider it as a set of interrelated cultural phenomena.