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What is Religion?

What is Religion?

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will provide an overview of the ways in which believers practice their religions and how those practices manifest themselves as "phenomena."

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What is Religion

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Oh, hi. I've just been trying to come up with a good definition for you. What is religion? That's the title of the tutorial, right? Well I don't have a definition for you. I'm sorry. I don't. But let's look at-- maybe I'm not alone. Maybe there are many other people who are struggling with this. Maybe you're struggling. Let's look at it together then.

Well, many people would agree that a good definition of religion would have to include the belief in a supernatural being, a deity, some kind of deity or supernatural force beyond the human realm. OK. Well, that would work for traditions in the West like Judaism and Christianity and Islam, but it wouldn't work for Buddhism, which doesn't necessarily believe in a supernatural being in the way than we do here in the West. So it's not a theistic religion in the sense that it doesn't have a God like the monotheistic traditions.

So what about if we had a definition of religion that didn't include the supernatural? Well, I think if we did that then it would just be way too broad and much more difficult to put our finger on.

So, let's see. Let's look at some of the things that are in common among many religions. Well, the idea of faith and belief. Those are pretty common. Everyone would agree that most religions have those two elements. But the French sociologist Emile Durkheim noticed that society and individuals that make up society have many different beliefs and many of them are not religious beliefs. And religion is inherently a very social thing. And if we really are honest with ourselves, religion ultimately-- everyone has a good sense that religion is something more than just the social.

So if we limit it to just belief and faith then we also restrict ourselves there. So what are we going to do? Well, why don't we look at a phenomenological approach, some kind of an approach that doesn't necessarily concern itself with the truth and falsity of religious belief? Not an empirical approach but more of an experiential approach. This is the phenomenological approach. And it might be much more useful in understanding religion and religious experience.

So we will cover phenomenology in a subsequent lesson down the line, so I hope you join us for that. But I think in order to eliminate the problem of being too vague or being too restrictive we should probably look at this phenomenological approach which is more of an individual and collective approach to understanding the nature of experience, not so much the content of experience.

Well I hope that's a good start in thinking about religion and how to approach the topic. We'll see you next time. Thanks.

Terms to Know

Acceptance of the truth or existence of any thing, person, or idea, even where contrary opinions may be rationally accepted.


A wide-ranging group of religious philosophies inspired by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha).


Acceptance of the truth or existence of any thing, person, or idea, even in the absence of substantiating evidence.

Phenomenology of Religion

An academic discipline that studies religion as an individual and collective phenomenon, to be studied without reference to the truth or falsity of any underlying beliefs.


That which is above and beyond the natural or ordinary.