Religion is an incredibly diverse collection of human beliefs, values and practices that people across the globe hold to be spiritually significant. It is also an incredibly powerful force in society and is often a source of peace and happiness for many people. Despite this, there is much debate about what constitutes a religion and how it should be defined. Some scholars argue that to understand religion in terms of beliefs – or indeed in any subjective states at all – is to miss the point of the phenomenon; while others suggest that to focus on institutional structures and disciplinary practices ignores the profoundly human dimensions of the concept.
Most definitions of religion incorporate some notion of people’s relation to that which they believe is holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual or divine and the ultimate concerns that people have about their lives and their fate after death. Those concerns may be addressed through the belief in one or more gods or spirits, or, in more humanistic and naturalistic forms of religion, through people who are invested with spiritual or moral authority.
In addition, most religions provide a framework for understanding time and space on an astronomically large scale and have provided inspiration for many of the most enduring and moving of human creations, including art, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry and even explorations of the cosmos that eventually issued into what is now known as the natural sciences.
While all social institutions evolve over time, religions tend to change more slowly than other aspects of society and to retain older features alongside new ones. They also tend to combine beliefs and practices in ways that may seem contradictory or even absurd. For example, it is common for many religions to discourage marriage and the raising of children but encourage benevolent service to the community or to nature.
A key element of most religions is that they encourage people to live their life as a project towards acknowledged but largely unknown ends. Religions protect and transmit the means to achieve these goals, some of which are proximate, involving making this life wiser, more fruitful, charitable or successful, while others are ultimate, relating to the final condition of this or any other person or even of the universe itself.
It is for this reason that many social scientists have taken a reflexive turn over the last several decades, questioning how we can legitimately use the term religion to describe what humans do in their relationships with each other and with the universe. This is not to say that the existence of religions is no longer a valid subject for academic study, but rather to recognize that the fact that what counts as a religion depends on one’s presuppositions about how societies should function. In other words, the definition of religion is a cultural construction that is always under revision.