What Is Religion?


Religions are human communities’ responses to the fundamental questions of life, death, and what comes after. They answer these questions in various ways by promoting social cohesion, providing orientation in life, and generating moral standards. They also have symbolic and ritual components. These may include myths, symbols, iconography, and sacraments. They are also the source of mystical experiences, the spiritual, and the supernatural. They may have a God or gods, or they may be naturalistic in nature. They may also have a prophet or messenger, such as Jesus for Christianity, Muhammad for Islam, and Bahaullah for the Bahai Faith.

Anthropologists believe that religion developed early as people tried to control the uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather and fertility or success in hunting. Early attempts at control came in two forms: manipulation, through magic; and supplication, through religion. Examples of magical attempts include drawing pictures on cave walls in the hope of predicting future weather or of ensuring successful hunting.

Religious supplication attempts to communicate with a higher power or the spirit world by using prayers, trancelike conditions, or other religious practices. These are often called “spiritual experiences,” and for some people they are transformative. For others, they are not.

Scholars who study religion have a long history of debate over the definition of religion, and many different approaches to it exist. Some scholars use a monothetic approach, which believes that any phenomenon that accurately fits a given concept will share one or more defining properties. Others take a polythetic approach, which holds that a concept can have more than one definition.