What Is Religion?


Religion is the name for a variety of beliefs and practices that are regarded as sacred. They are typically seen as bringing together people for community, for worship and for spiritual guidance. They provide resources and inspiration for many of the most enduring and timelessly moving of human creations, such as religious art, architecture, agriculture, science, moral conduct, and so on.

In the context of social science, scholars have long debated how to define what it is that constitutes religion. One common way is to treat it as a social genus, something that appears in every culture. Another way is to define it functionally, based on the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or that give life direction. Often, both approaches are used in tandem.

As with other institutions, religions evolve over time, but they tend to change at a slower rate than other institutions and mix in older features with newer ones. They also play a more important role in society than do other institutions. Religious institutions serve as charities to help meet people’s basic needs, as educational institutions with mainstream and alternative pedagogies, and as community organizations that mobilize groups of people for specific actions.

Talal Asad, in a classic book of the reflexive turn in anthropology, called Genealogies of Religion, has challenged scholars to shift their attention to the concept religion and recognize that assumptions baked into its definition have distorted our grasp of historical realities. However, unlike Clifford Geertz, Asad does not draw a nonrealist conclusion; he believes that the concept religion names something real in the world, even though it exists only because of the techniques of power that are imposed on its development.