What is a Religion?

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

What Is a Religion Really?

What constitutes a religion, and are they different from a philosophical system or folk superstition? There is a common misconception out there that religious belief requires the belief in the supernatural and that it has to be a group phenomenon. Both these conceptions are wrong. Firstly, as to the supposed belief in the supernatural, if we really stop to think about what constitutes the so-called supernatural, the whole concept is fundamentally meaningless. Supernatural means something "caused by forces that cannot be explained by science" (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021). But what exactly cannot be explained by science? After all, "today's magic is tomorrow’s science" (Clarke, 1973).

Does Religion Require Belief in the Supernatural?

Much of what was unexplainable a century ago is common knowledge today, and much that is unexplainable today will be discovered in the future. The limits to the current level of knowledge do not make whatever is not known supernatural. It merely makes it unproven, undetermined or speculative in nature. Consider for a moment that if science were able to prove the existence of the Christian God by the common definition of religion, Christianity would cease to be a religion. This logical fallacy seems to indicate that the standard definition of religion is a winking definition.

By winking, I mean that the common definition of religion implies that all religions are essentially false belief systems contrary to science. However, it also suggests more than that. It implies that science is the guardian of all truth and that the philosophy of Empiricism is the only path to knowledge. This is not to suggest that Empiricism does not have value, but it is to point out that there are similarities between a religious worldview and the scientific worldview. In each case, the extremist proponent of each particular worldview sees only their own position as having explanatory value and discounts without examination arguments detrimental to their own beliefs.

Therefore, a better definition for religion might be more akin to that of a worldview, which is defined as "a collection of attitudes, values, stories and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action" (Sire, 2004; Gray, 2011). If we take this position, then religion would expand to include any explanatory philosophical-religious system which;

1. Explains the nature of existence,

2. Explains our place and purpose in existence, and

3. Informs our moral decision-making process.

The beauty of this position is that it allows for the inclusion of all the moral belief systems under one banner. This broad definition would range from Atheism, Naturalism and Empiricism, which rejects the supernatural, to Confucianism, Shinto, Agnosticism, Stoicism etc., which are ambivalent to it, to the various forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Animalism etc., that explicitly affirm the existence of the supernatural.

Does Religion Require a Church?

However, this is only part of the story. The philosophical-religious system, be it Empiricalism, Christianity or any other, forms only the bones of what is called a religion. In each case, the individual adherent builds their own unique religion, influenced to a greater or lesser extent by their society and the faith of their parents.

While remaining unique to the individual, these personal religions, despite their differences, generally share many commonalities and thus can be grouped into the traditional groupings we are familiar with. This internal heterogeneity is what we see if we look at the evidence from religious belief surveys. For instance, if we look at Catholicism, while those whose religious beliefs are aligned with the Catholic faith share many similarities, they also show marked deviations. For instance, if we look at beliefs amongst Catholics on heaven and hell, we can see marked variations between belief levels on these fundamental tenants of faith (Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, 2014). With only 63% of Catholics believing in hell and some not even believing in heaven.

If there is such marked heterogeneity of belief in such broad and fundamental tenets of the faith, in that case, there must be even greater differences in individual conceptions of the concepts themselves. These marked differences indicate how personal religion remains even in religions with clearly defined dogma and religious hierarchies such as Catholicism. Essentially, this means that, while we often think of religions as group phenomenons, they are, in reality, little more than clubs of individuals with similar worldviews.

Does Religion Require a System?

However, this does not fully explain why religion is different from folk superstition or philosophy. Essentially, this difference is due not to the subjects of belief but rather to the completeness of the belief system. For instance, folk superstitions, while offering explanations or advice, are generally fragmented concepts unconnected to a broader system of beliefs. Seeing a black cat on the way to join a ship, breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder are considered unlucky while knocking on wood or having a bird poo on you is lucky. Yet these and many other superstitions fail to explain the world or answer the three questions of the nature of existence, our place in it and the moral code we should live by, and thus, they cannot be religions.

In the same way, some philosophical systems also fail to answer all three of these questions and thus fall short of the requirements of being religious. Good examples of this are utilitarianism and its offshoots, such as antinatalism and most political philosophies. These philosophies often answer the last two questions yet cannot answer the first one—the nature of existence.


Thus, a philosophical-religious system should not require the belief in the supernatural or a large membership to be considered a religion. Instead, the only requirements should be that the system that;

1. Explains the nature of existence,

2. Explains our place and purpose in existence, and

3. Informs our moral decision-making process.

A system’s ability to answer these three questions determines if it is religious, philosophical, or superstitious in nature.

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Cambridge Dictionary. (2021, 07 18). Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/supernatural

Clarke, A. C. (1973). Profiles of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible. . New York: Harper & Row.

Gray, J. (2011). Worldviews. International psychiatry : bulletin of the Board of International Affairs of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 8(3),, 58–60.

Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.pewforum.org/about-the-religious-landscape-study/#data-details

Sire, J. W. (2004). Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. . Intervarsity Press.

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