What Is Religion?


Religion is a broad category of human beliefs and practices. It is a worldview that views life as having spiritual and supernatural dimensions, and often combines these with a moral framework and an organized social structure. In more traditional religious forms, it focuses on people’s relations to gods or spirits; in less traditional and more secular religions, it is about humans’ relations to the broader universe or natural world.

The term religion has a long history, but its meaning has evolved over time and across cultures. Unlike some social institutions, which change radically from one era to the next, religions and spiritual/religious practices typically evolve more slowly. They also tend to retain some older features and mix in newer ones.

There is no universally agreed upon definition of religion, but several approaches to the concept are favored by scholars and others. The most common approach considers the existence and role within a person’s life of a supreme being or spirit or group of spirits. This perspective is sometimes called theism or monotheism; other approaches include agnosticism, atheism, pantheism and polytheism.

Another common approach, influenced by the work of Emile Durkheim, stresses that religions are social formations with certain specific functions for society. This is also known as the functionalist view. It is a very influential perspective, but anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz have critiqued the approach, noting that it gives too much attention to individual interpretation of symbols and too little to the structures that give rise to them.

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