What Is Religion?

Religions are a very large-scale and highly complex set of human phenomena. The word’religion’ is often used to refer to beliefs that people hold and practices they engage in that relate to their views of the natural world and human society, to a higher power or gods, and to their attitudes toward life after death. In more traditional religious forms, these beliefs and practices create community and help people deal with their ultimate concerns about their lives, their fate after death, and the responsibilities of humans to the environment.

Moreover, many religions are powerful social drivers, as the work of Rodney Stark and evolutionary psychology approaches have shown. They also are the source of many of the most enduring and timelessly moving of human creations—art, architecture, music, drama, poetry, agriculture, the explorations of nature that issued into what is now called science (it is only very recently that science has been decoupled from religion as a way of exploring the universe).

Even so, it is difficult to get a handle on what’religion’ really is. Some philosophers argue that to treat religion as a thing, or even a category of things, is to fall victim to the Protestant bias that seeks to reduce mental states to structures and disciplinary practices. They say that it is better to think of religion as a way that people value, organize, and express their valuations. Hence the term ‘value-based’ religion.