What Is Religion?

Religion involves people’s relation to that which is holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. People’s religious beliefs and practices may focus on gods, spirits, texts, gurus, morality or the natural world. They may also involve devotional and/or contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation and worship. Religion may have supernatural origins, be founded on moral teachings and/or embody an ethos of service.

Like all social institutions, religion evolves within and across cultures. It adapts to population growth and changing lifestyles, absorbing and shedding old features as they replace new ones. It is often a catalyst for change, promoting more rapid social evolution, but it can also be resistant to change.

There have been many different definitions of religion, and each has its strengths and limitations. The most common definitions are those that specify a particular property or set of properties as the defining criterion. These are called “monothetic” approaches. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as the set of practices that unites a group into a moral community, whether those practices include belief in any unusual realities or not.

More recently, scholars have shifted to a “polythetic” approach that focuses on the functions of religion rather than specific beliefs or practices. This is sometimes referred to as a “functionalist” or “institutionalist” approach. One of the key elements of this approach is that it does not assume that the concept of a religion is already present in the culture, but instead looks for patterns in the way that the various functions of religion appear over time and in different places.