What Is a Religion?


Religions are cultural systems that sort forms of life in various ways. They may define and organize moral communities; they may explain and justify their beliefs and values; they may offer a path to redemption; they may provide rituals that sanctify, purify, or empower human beings and animate rites of passage and commemoration; they may even engender belief in a supernatural reality (though this is a very minor part of many religions).

The term is now used as a taxon for sets of practices rather than as a category of social formation with a fixed essence that all instances share. This shift has brought two philosophical issues to the fore.

One is the problem of stipulative definitions, which fasten on particular properties that are seen as essential for any instance to be called a religion. This is a serious issue, since it means that the word has an ahistorical meaning.

A second issue is the problem of polythetic definitions, which seek to avoid the claim that an evolving concept has a fixed essence. These are becoming increasingly popular today, since they make sense of the great variety of forms that now can be called religions.

Some scholars try to solve both problems by dropping the idea of a substance or an essence and instead defining religions in terms of their ability to organize moral communities, a definition that is often referred to as functional. Emile Durkheim, for example, defines a religion as whatever system of practices unites a community into a single moral community, whether or not these practices involve beliefs in unusual realities. This is a useful definition, but it is also a very vague one.

For most people, however, the fact that religions organize and manage groups of people inevitably leads them to include ideas about what makes a group of people religious, or at least a kind of religiosity. This is why so many religions have organizational structures, such as sects, temples, and churches; codes of recognition and behaviour that may be based on membership in a religious family (with the potential for hierarchies); and the existence of expert religious specialists-priests, witches, shamans, imams, gurus, monks, nuns, bhiksus, etc.

In addition to these external forms, religions have explored the inner nature of the human body as well, through explorations of the possibility of truth in such forms as enlightenment, peace, emptiness, or the Buddha-nature. This type of internal exploration is sometimes referred to as somatic exploration, and it is important in helping people recognize their own limits. It also helps them to feel secure enough to explore beyond their limits, which is why so many religions encourage a kind of exploration of the world around them. Certainly, the most famous and successful religions have accomplished this.