Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In traditional religious traditions, these concerns are expressed in terms of people’s relationships or attitudes toward gods or spirits; in more humanistic or naturalistic religions, they are usually expressed in terms of people’s relations or attitudes toward the broader human community or the natural world.
In the academic study of religion, there is a long-standing debate over what the concept should consist of. Some scholars take a substantive approach, which defines religion as whatever beliefs correspond to a distinctive kind of reality. Others take a functional approach, which focuses on the role that such beliefs can play in one’s life.
For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices serves to unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities). Paul Tillich took this further, defining religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.
Other scholars reject these monothetic definitions and argue that the concept of religion should be treated as a complex. They cite examples such as Catherine Albanese’s three-sided model of the true, the beautiful and the good or Ninian Smart’s famous “anatomy” of religion, which has seven dimensions. They also point to the fact that even when a faith has no explicit ideas about what is true, beautiful or good, it often includes an implicit model of these things and can contribute to them through its rituals, physical culture and social structures.