What Makes Something a Religion?


Religion is an ancient phenomenon that persists in various forms around the globe. Millions of people live according to a faith that teaches them how to behave and what is important in life. The Latin root religio means “to bind together,” and this is exactly what religion does for its followers. It binds people together by sharing a set of values and practices that make up an ethical system, or worldview. It binds them through the belief in supernatural beings that a religion explains as responsible for human lives and events. The article that follows offers a brief history of the evolution of the concept of religion, and then considers two philosophical issues about what makes something a religion and how one might sort out such phenomena.

Many philosophers have tried to determine what features of a practice or experience make it “religious.” This has typically been an attempt to find a definition that is “true” or a “correct” way of understanding what it is that distinguishes a religious phenomenon from non-religious ones. This approach has run into problems. First, as the number of features has increased, so too has the difficulty in identifying enough of them to form a meaningful category. Second, if you try to treat religion as a kind of social phenomenon that can be sorted out by its distinctive characteristics, you risk missing the fact that these phenomena are as diverse as humans themselves and cannot be treated in terms of their commonalities.