How to Define Religion


Religion is a large and important aspect of human culture. Studying it gives you a greater understanding of global complexity and allows you to see the world through the lens of a different culture. It can also open up your own spiritual ideas and beliefs. Many people, including religious scholars and practitioners, use a broad definition of religion to include all spiritual belief systems, practices and values. This approach is helpful for interfaith dialogue and comparisons between religions, as well as in academic studies of religion.

Beliefs are statements that are not necessarily provable, such as “God exists.” Practices are observable behaviors that are often ritualized and have very specific steps. Values are underlying motivations for both beliefs and practices, but are not always openly stated. Some researchers argue that to truly understand a religion, one must go beyond beliefs and practices and look at the underlying values as well.

The term religion comes from the Latin word religio, meaning “scrupulousness,” a sense of duty or devotion. The term has been used in anthropology to describe systems of belief that are more than just a set of cultural beliefs. Clifford Geertz, an influential anthropologist, uses the term to describe how religions create powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in their followers by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these concepts with such an aura of factuality that they become powerfully persuasive.

Whether you choose to define religion broadly or narrowly, it is important to understand that the majority of people in the world follow some form of religion. You are likely to encounter a religion in your daily life, whether you see someone wearing a turban or notice that a grocery store sells Kosher food.

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