What Is Religion?


Religion is a system of beliefs and practices designed to make life, particularly human life, a bit easier. It is a way to protect and transmit the means of attaining the most important goals imaginable (for example, a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful, more meaningful, or more ecstatic life). For some religions these are proximate goals that can be attained within this life; for others, these may be goals that have nothing to do with this life but rather with the end condition of this or any other human person, or even of the cosmos itself.

It has been the source and inspiration of some of the most enduring and timelessly moving of human creations, from religious art to architecture, agriculture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and the explorations of the cosmos that issued as the natural sciences. But it is also the root of many of the most pernicious of human behaviors, from intolerance and cruelty to bigotry and social oppression and self-opinionated nastiness.

The wide range of practices that can now be categorized as religions has shifted the semantic range of the concept. In the early 20th century, scholars often used the term to refer to the belief in one supreme god and a collection of practices that were supposed to connect the worshipper with that supreme god. This is no longer the case, and it makes sense to treat this contested concept as a family resemblance concept, rather than a necessary and sufficient one.