What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad social taxon that includes a vast range of beliefs, practices, rituals and philosophies about life, the universe and death. It also entails a set of values that organize one’s relationships with other believers, outsiders and the supernatural world. It is a cultural system that often involves a shared vocabulary of venerable traditions, writings and histories. It usually divides the world into two comprehensive domains, one sacred and the other profane, and it makes judgments of good and evil.

The wide semantic range of religion has raised questions about how to define it. One approach has been to try to draw sharp lines and determine with certainty whether something is religious. This has led to controversy, as well as the use of a number of different criteria. A second approach is to attempt to understand the category and its characteristics. This has been accomplished in various ways, with varying success.

The early theories of religion grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and fear of uncontrollable forces, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and the successful hunting of animals. These theories evolved into the hope that humanity could overcome these forces through a personal relationship to a god or goddess. This was a kind of hope that differed from magic, which tried to control the environment through direct manipulation. It was a kind of hope that differed again from secularism, which focused on the pursuit of pleasure and self-interest.

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