What Is Religion?


Religious people think about and live with a wide range of concerns. Some are proximate, such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable or successful life in this world; others are ultimate, such as a better chance for rebirth or the end of death. Some religions also address the problem of bringing children up in a good way, as well as the moral and ethical issues that come with being alive (i.e., the “what to do” dimension).

Different scholars have defined religion in a variety of ways. Some, such as Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have used a functional approach that turns on social function and on the organization of values in a person’s life. Others, like Edward Tylor, use a substantive definition that includes belief in supernatural entities and other beliefs that are considered to be religious by some groups of people.

Other scholars, including some who have been involved in the religious studies movement since the 1970s, have drawn the camera back to look at the constructed nature of the concept of religion. It is common today to hear that the notion of religion is just an invented category whose modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. This is the kind of argument that has given rise to the slogan, “There is no such thing as religion.” However, it is important to note that there are some who take this view but still argue for the existence of religion.

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