The Nature of Religion


Religion is an organised group of beliefs, values and practices that a person follows. It promotes a sense of happiness and well-being in life, teaches the right way to act, and enables adherents to form social and personal relationships with others.

The nature of religions varies across the world, but they generally share four basic dimensions: experiential, institutional, ethical and material. These four aspects of religion are a useful framework for understanding the complex nature of religions as they develop and interact.

Experiential dimension relates to human experience of the divine or otherworldly, and includes such things as religious rituals, ceremonies, trancelike states, and a sense of oneness with other members of the community. Such experiences are usually highly intense and can lead to tears, laughter, or even a sense of enlightenment or clarity.

Institutional dimension relates to the ways that religions tend to function as organised groups, and includes such things as the development of hierarchies and organisations, and social rules and regulations. These types of organisations are often important for ensuring social cohesion and stability in communities.

Ethical dimension relates to the way that religions provide guidance on how to live in a moral context, and generally aim to improve people’s well-being. They also promote the idea that a person should strive to achieve happiness in this life or the next, and may encourage social change and activism.

The definitions of religion vary, and scholars often debate how to define the concept of religion in a way that is both substantive and functional. Some have argued that the notion of religion can only be defined in a nonreflexive, formal sense, and that this approach relegates the term to a passive role as a transmitter of charisma or legitimacy to the social actor (Dobbelaere and Lauwers 1973).