The Essence of Religion


Religion is one of the most widespread and influential cultural types. In its most general sense, it refers to beliefs and practices that give people a sense of cohesion and direction in life. However, despite the wide range of beliefs that are considered part of this concept, scholars have struggled to determine whether there is an essence that distinguishes religion from other cultural types.

Two ways of thinking about religion are often used as a framework to examine the concept: the idea that it is a social genus and the view that it names an inevitable feature of human nature. While it is true that people everywhere participate in religion, some argue that there are practices that do not qualify as religious and belong instead in a different category such as magic, superstition, or heresy.

In the first, religious practice is defined as a set of beliefs that include a belief in some kind of spirituality or supernatural powers. Historically, this idea has been used to describe all manner of beliefs that are not traditional Christianity. For example, cults such as Rastafarianism and Scientology are viewed as religions even though they do not believe in a God. In this view, religions are simply social structures that organize people into distinct groups and create a common identity.

The second view, which is most commonly applied to the concept of religion in academic literature, takes the view that there is an essential quality that defines this cultural type. This approach is sometimes referred to as monothetic because the definition turns on a single criterion such as belief in the existence of spirits or some other supernatural beings. Other monothetic definitions of religion exist such as those of Edward Tylor and Paul Tillich which focus on the function of providing a person with a sense of purpose.

A third way of thinking about religion is to treat it as a complex of cooperant virtues with God as their direct object. These virtues include faith, hope, and love. In faith, the virtue is reverent disposition to submit oneself to Divine authority and to accept on this basis what is revealed by Him. Hope is the belief in God’s goodness and power to bring about future good for all of His creation. And love is the emotion of affection that arises from contemplation of God’s magnificent goodness and excellence.

All of these virtues are interdependent and contribute to the religious experience. For example, hope evokes gratitude; the recognition of dependence on God prompts fear and sorrow; the consciousness that man has offended and estranged God causes sorrow and desire for reconciliation. All of these, in turn, generate more hope. Thus, a person is led to engage in more and more of these practices until they are completely committed to the religious life. This is the definition of religion that most scholars use today. It is also the one that most people recognize as being their own.