Religion is a term used to describe a range of human activities that center on a relationship with something considered holy, sacred, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. These concerns include life after death, morality and ethical values, divine power, religious experience, scripture, authority, doctrine, salvation, family and community, and the broader meaning of life.
It is a category that is more than 80 percent of the world’s population subscribes to, yet it remains a contested concept with no universally accepted definition. This is largely because, as the Verstehen school of social scientists have pointed out, people from different cultures and societies define religion differently.
Some definitions of religion focus on behavior, such as rituals or prayers; others are more theoretical, such as a belief system with a central dogma or doctrinal beliefs that affect the way an adherent thinks and acts. Still other definitions focus on an individual’s worldview, the attitudes and values that shape a person’s beliefs.
While a general definition of religion is often difficult to establish, there are certain common features that can be found in most religions. These features can be divided into three broad categories: the “true,” the “beautiful,” and the “good.”
1. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful
One of the most common definitions of religion is that it consists of a belief system with a central dogma, which focuses on a god or set of gods. There are many other forms of religion, including those that are based on myths or stories, on philosophy, or on the natural world.
2. The Good, the Beautiful, and the True
In many cultures, there is a belief that there is a divine power that is greater than all other powers. This is called a “god” or a “deity.” Some religions also believe that there are other gods and other supernatural beings, such as spirits or angels.
3. The True, the Beautiful, and the Good
While this definition of religion is widely used, it misses an important dimension. It fails to recognize that the religions that most people belong to are composed of bodies, habits, and physical culture.
4. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful
Another popular, although less precise, definition of religion is that it consists of adherence to certain religious practices, rituals, or beliefs. This description is criticized for not distinguishing between rituals and behavior, and between doctrinal beliefs and personal convictions.
5. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful
This definition of religion is more accurate than those that emphasize behavior or a belief system with a central dogma. It also is more specific than those that exclude the use of magic or cults.