What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs, rituals and moral codes that connect individuals and communities to something beyond themselves. It often encompasses explanations of the origin of life, the universe and other phenomena. Religious beliefs may also include a belief in a supernatural power and/or in the afterlife.

Traditionally, most definitions of “religion” have been substantive: they define the concept in terms of its capacity to organize a social group and to generate particular kinds of values or moralities. Emile Durkheim, for example, defines religion in terms of the way a society develops a moral community. This type of substantive definition is often referred to as a monothetic approach.

Another type of definition focuses on the functions that a religion serves in a person’s life. Theologian Paul Tillich offers one such functional definition: “religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values—whether those concerns involve the notion of unusual realities.” This type of functional definition is often referred to as an open polythetic approach.

The most important feature that distinguishes religions from other forms of cultural organization is their capacity to organize human beings into groups whose members share the same ultimate concerns about their own fates (as humans or as part of the cosmos). These concerns are often expressed in terms of the attainment of proximate goals that can be attained within this lifetime (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable or successful life) or within the process of rebirth.

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