What Is Religion?

Religion encompasses a staggering range of practices and beliefs worldwide. It is so diverse, in fact, that scholars have struggled to come up with a definition of the term that will cover all of it. The most commonly used definitions focus on “belief in a distinctive kind of reality.” This is called a substantive definition.

One of the most famous substantive definitions was developed by German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883). He wrote that religion was a “sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, it provided people with consoling false illusions that made life feel meaningful.

More recently, sociologists and others have attempted to broaden the scope of the definition by focusing on the social interactions that make up religious life. These include rituals, ceremonies, and other symbolic acts that are central to the experience of religion. These experiences can involve a wide variety of emotions and feelings and may include tears, laughter, screaming, trancelike states, and the sense of being connected with other believers. They can also help to foster morality, promote psychological and physical well-being, reinforce social cohesion and stability, and serve as a source of inspiration for social change.

The rise of this more social approach has led to the development of an argument that the concept religion is an invention of modern European society, and that it should be viewed as a social taxon, not a real thing. This argument is most often presented by cultural critics who argue that the semantic expansion of the concept of religion went hand in hand with Western colonialism and imperialism.