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What is Religion?

What is Religion?


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? Religion can be kind of hard to define. Because for what applies to one religion might not apply to another. We all think that we know what religion is until we try to sit down and come up with a good definition.

For example, we might say, maybe religion is a belief in a higher power. But then some religions, like Buddhism, the religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama, doesn't really have a higher power. The Buddha seems kind of like a god sometimes. But at other times seems like a regular human being.

And then some religions have one god. Some religions have many gods. Christianity has a Trinity. Some primal religions have a belief in animism, or spirits of nature. Or many religions have worship of ancestors.

So this whole higher power notion can get kind of foggy and fuzzy. So maybe we want to banish the higher power altogether. And say that religion doesn't necessarily involve faith in unseen realities, in a supernatural realm that is above our ordinary understanding.

But then, that doesn't really clarify things much either. Because if we get rid of the higher power, well, what about, say, baseball? Hmm. Is baseball a religion?

Or what about, I don't know, watching TV? Is that a religion? Hmm. I don't know. So if we get rid of the higher power, we don't seem to be in not much better of a position.

And as the sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, pointed out, there are so many different beliefs. There's as many different beliefs as there are believers. And with all this diversity, it simply becomes too hard to have a definition of religion. And as the baseball problem illustrates, well, how do we differentiate religions from other kinds of belief?

Well, one stab at an answer comes from a discipline known as phenomenology, the phenomenology of religion. This branch of philosophy began with a guy named Edmund Husserl. And Husserl was after a descriptive science, a pure kind of description that would bracket all of our presuppositions, that would allow us to approach whatever we're studying directly, to allow the essence of whatever it is that we're studying to shine or radiate forth.

So phenomenology presents religion as experience. It takes seriously the first person. And yet, it doesn't stop at the first person. It might then move into the third person of saying, what is it that religion is about. So it takes that religion as experience and tries to move into a pure science of description that can you give us categories and ways of understanding religion that do not depend on using the terms of the historical phase themselves.

So we'll be talking a little bit more about the phenomenology of religion in later tutorials. But for now, we can say that phenomenology attempts to give a generic account of religious experience.

Thanks for watching this video on What Is Religion. The vocabulary terms for this lesson are supernatural, Buddhism, faith, belief, and phenomenology of religion. See you next time.

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.