What Is Religion?

Interest in the general study of religion dates back to Hecataeus and Herodotus. Since then it has been one of the most important branches of humanistic studies, and has developed together with the history of ideas and cultures.

Religion is the belief in a supernatural Being and, in highest grades of culture, His Divine personality. This superhuman Being controls the forces of nature and directs them for men’s weal or woe. It is man’s deeply felt dependence on and need of Divine help that constitutes the essence of religion.

It is accompanied by the knowledge of divine revelations, and also, in the higher grades of religion, by philosophic speculation on the nature of God, on the immortal soul, on the future life, etc. These speculative elements are supplemented by practical and devotional acts. Prayer, worship, moral conduct, and participation in religious institutions are a part of the whole religious activity.

Attempts have been made to describe the essential characteristics of religion in various ways, such as “man’s recognition of all duties as divine commands” (Kant), or “the earnest direction of man’s emotions and desires towards an ideal object recognized as of the highest excellence and as rightly paramount over selfish objects of desire” (Mathew Arnold). It is difficult, however, to define what constitutes religion. Hence, the wide variety of beliefs and practices which have been called religion. Typical examples are the following:

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