What Is Religion?

Religion is a global phenomenon, affecting almost everyone on the planet. Whether it is Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, each religion has a unique set of beliefs and practices, but all of them share some common characteristics that distinguish them from philosophies and purely ethical systems.

According to one view, religion grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and out of fear of uncontrollable forces. These emotions were transformed into hope, a belief in immortality or eternal life and in a kind Creator who watches over and supports humanity.

Many religions have a sacred book or texts, a place of worship, and a ritualized way of life. They also have a concept of salvation, often involving sacrifice. They usually have codes of ethics and a priesthood to guide believers. They may have myth and symbol, a concept of the cosmos, and a leader who gains godlike status.

Durkheim’s theory of religion turns on its social function of creating solidarity. Paul Tillich takes a more functional approach, defining religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not these concerns involve belief in unusual realities). But even though it can be difficult to find any universal definition of religion, most of the world’s major religions do have some shared characteristics. For example, they all incorporate a belief in a transcendent reality; most have some idea of what life is about; and most have some concept of what it means to be human.