What is religion?

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 14/12/2019

Last modified: 26/10/2020


Although at first glance, you might think that religion is an easy to understand concept - it becomes very difficult to pin down, the more you look at it. There are lots of possible definitions, but none of them are 100% right.

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The first step in the study of any subject is to define our terms, draw a line around the area we’re interested in, and decide how we’ll investigate.

Just like any other subject, the method of investigation will influence the type of results we achieve.

To borrow a metaphor from the world of science: if we use a telescope, we only see things that are large and far away; if we use a microscope, we only see things that are small and close.

If we only ever use one of these tools, we’ll miss everything else and get a warped picture of the world. Have you ever tried walking down the street looking down a telescope? You’ll walk into a lamppost.

Getting back to religious studies, we find that the telescope/microscope principle is amplified by the fact that the subject matter is so broad, so deeply embedded in different human activities and intellectual domains that we can’t limit ourselves to just one or two techniques. There are a lot of ways to investigate, and for that reason religious studies is sometimes called multidisciplinary.

Multidisciplinary: many ways to study

Multidisciplinary just means that scholars from different academic backgrounds can get involved and provide different (equally valid) perspectives. A historian will have different ideas and observations to a philosopher, who in turn will work differently to an anthropologist, and they will have different skills to a sociologist!

Since all of these disciplines (or ways of study) focus on different areas of human life and activity, using different methods, and drawing different conclusions, it’s especially important to make sure we understand what religion is before we start.

But… if we start with a preconceived idea of what religion is, won’t we just pick the methods that work for our preconception and ignore the other material that might be relevant?

Yes. Unfortunately, religious studies can be a bit tricky!

As we go forward, we’ll try to unpick some of this complexity and you should emerge with a better understanding of what religion is, what it isn’t, and the relationship between scholar and subject.

What do you think?

How would you define religion? What ideas does the word conjure up?

There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to this question, and your responses may have covered many different areas, but here are some of the ideas I came up with.


  • …is a way of relating to the world and finding one’s place
  • …helps people to feel secure and safe
  • …provides meaning and direction
  • …is a tool for controlling large groups of people
  • …is a personal method of self-improvement
  • …guides people towards the divine
  • …is a way to bring people together

You may have noticed that my definitions were of a fairly sympathetic character. In contrast, there are many perspectives on religion that would classify it as untrue stories, methods of manipulation, and social power structures. You may find yourself leaning in that direction, finding religion to be somewhat oppressive or socially regressive – this is valid too, and there’s plenty of evidence for it.

You may also have noticed that my responses were non-denominational, in other words, not restricted to the perspective of one particular tradition or religious group. This is something that we should all aim for in religious studies – an understanding of human religiosity that is not restricted to one particular ideology or tradition.

To put it another way, if we get all of our information about what it means to be religious from Christian sources, then we might end up with a view of religion that leans very heavily towards religious systems of salvation, with holy scripture and organised structures of worship, and we’d miss out on all the other expressions of religious activity that don’t look enough like Christianity to count.

As it happens, this is exactly what happened to the field of religious studies for a long time - it was based on an idea of religion that was modelled on Christianity, and it did exclude many other traditions on the basis that they didn’t look enough like Christianity to count.

What we can actually study

When it comes to the study of religion, it might be tempting to think that we’ll be trying to figure out whether God is real, what is the nature of the soul, or whether good and evil are absolute. You know, the big questions about life.

But remember, we’re aiming for an academic investigation of the observable facts. The question of whether a religion is more or less true lies well outside our capacity as academic observers to determine. As scholars of religious studies, we’re interested in the measurable data of human life, things we can smell, touch, taste, see, and hear.

Sure, it’s possible that only one religion has the inside scoop on reality – but that’s not something we can reliably test or demonstrate. The ‘sister subject’ to religious studies is theology (study of the divine) and this is typically where you would go to engage personally, morally, and intellectually with the ideas and practices of different religions. There are plenty of theologians who also practice religious studies, and there are religious studies scholars who have thoughts and feelings about their personal relationship to the universe. What’s important to recognise is that the two fields of study approach different things in different ways.

As religious studies scholars, we will look at the human activities typically associated with religion and spirituality. Broadly, we can group these under three headings: belief, practice, and community. These are the same categories that the sociologist Emile Durkheim identified in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (emphasis added below).

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.

Durkheim, 1995, p.44

Note that Durkheim speaks in a universalist tone (i.e. he's trying to provide a definition of religion that can be applied in any setting), but uses explicitly Christian language ('one single moral community called a Church'). Why do you think this is?

Durkheim also defines a key concept (sacred things) as 'things set apart and forbidden'. Do you think this is a suitable definition of the sacred? What does the word mean to you? Does Durkheim's definition leave room for an unseen reality, or is he claiming that the sacred is purely a human convention?


  • Durkheim, E. (1995[1912]) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (trans. K. Fields), New York, The Free Press.
  • Smith, H. (1992) The World’s Religions, London, Harper Collins.

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Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay

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This article is part of the following books:

Introduction to Religious Studies

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