What Is Religion?

Religion is a term used today to identify a taxon for sets of social practices that are so distinctively organized that they warrant their own category. The best-known examples are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. In fact, there are many such traditions, and the concept of religion could just as easily be applied to a genus of social formations, as to a single one.

What these traditions have in common is that they protect information whose importance has been established through experience. It is information that has to be monitored, coded, protected and transmitted from person to person and (even more important) from generation to generation. It covers matters that range from sex to salvation; and it is information which, if neglected or mishandled, could have a devastating effect on human lives and societies.

The transmission of this information is extraordinarily varied: it may be done orally or in writing; through gestures and symbols, art and silences; by way of rituals; by means of a hierarchy of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, laity; it may be conducted by a central organization with its own center of authority and control, like the Roman Catholic Church, or it may have no such clear-cut organizational structure at all, as is the case with Hinduism. In terms of content, it varies widely as well: it may contain all the ten commandments or nothing more than the basic principles of the scientific method.

This is what makes it so difficult to categorize religions, and why, for most people, their religious faith and practice are so personal. Nevertheless, the function that they perform is fairly universal. It is to provide people with the means of attaining some of the most fundamental goals that can be conceived. Some of these are proximate, relating to the improvement of this life (a wiser, more fruitful, or more charitable way of living) and others have to do with the ultimate condition of this life and the cosmos as a whole.

This is why, even as Americans’ views about the role of religion in society have declined in recent years, most still feel that it is very important to them to belong to a religious community. For most Americans who are religiously affiliated, that community provides the foundation for a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In particular, eight-in-ten or more Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Evangelical Protestants say that their religion is very important in their lives. These figures have remained about the same in recent years.