The Nature of Religion

Religion is a phenomenon that arises from people’s desire for faith, meaning, and value. People are willing to live according to, and at times die for, what they most value. That valuation, in turn, provides a framework for moral order and supplies answers to many of life’s most profound questions.

In modern societies, there are no shortage of religious beliefs and practices. Some of them are so widespread as to be labeled world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, among others. However, the term religion can also be applied to social formations that are less widely spread or are specific to a given region or group of people.

Scholars have debated the nature of religion for centuries. Some have argued that it is a matter of belief in the supernatural, while others have stressed the importance of ritual and community. Still others have focused on the role that religion plays in the formation of moral values and attitudes.

Despite these disagreements, most scholars agree that religions are characterized by the way in which they address ultimate concerns, such as death and what comes after it. Most religions are concerned with the afterlife, and most religions are organized into denominations or sects that are devoted to one or more gods or deities. Most religions have a strong sense of community, and many have scriptures or holy texts that are considered to be divinely inspired.

Some scholars use stipulative definitions to categorize religions, such as Edward Tylor’s minimum requirement of believing in spiritual beings or Paul Tillich’s functional criterion of ultimate concern. These stipulative definitions are controversial because they force scholars to accept them without being able to critique them. De Muckadell criticizes stipulative definitions for this reason and uses the ice-skating while singing example to illustrate her point.

In contrast to stipulative definitions, there are polythetic definitions that recognize the multifaceted nature of religion. Richardson’s model, for instance, consists of seven dimensions: the practical and ritual; the experiential and emotional; the narrative or mythical; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and legal; and the material (art and architecture). Ninian Smart, in his classic Anatomy of Religion, argues that there are also four dimensions, but suggests adding a fourth to include “community”.

While some scholars have called for shifting attention away from mental states toward social structures, others have argued that this is a mistake. By focusing on internal mental states, they risk missing the fact that religions are not just beliefs but also behavioral patterns and institutions that influence people’s lives, culture, morality, approach to certain writings or persons, and attitude toward them. In addition, the lines between a particular culture or philosophy or tradition or myth and religion are not always clearly drawn.