Intro to Religion: What is Religion?

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 1, 2009 in Intro to Religion

intro to religion what is religion

Welcome to my Intro to Religion course.

What is religion? The question reminds me of St. Augustine’s quote about time: “If you do not ask me what time is, I know. If you ask me, I do not know.” It seems the same with religion. Everybody knows what religion is before you ask them. But if you ask them what religion is, they will find it very hard to define!

A dictionary might tell you religion is a “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power…” But this would exclude some forms of Jainism and Buddhism, and that doesn’t seem right. Those traditions share so much with mainstream religions, it would be silly to exclude them.

A better definition was suggested by James Livingston:

Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.

But religion is such a complex and varied human phenomenon that some sociologists prefer to avoid definitions and think of religion in terms of an ideal type. They will say that most religions have most of the characteristics of the ideal type, but they need not have all of them.

An ideal type of religion includes:

  1. interaction with the supernatural
  2. a diagnosis of something essentially wrong with the human condition, and a prescription for salvation or liberation from it
  3. regular, repeated behavior (ritual)
  4. community practice

So some forms of Jainism and Buddhism don’t fit with (1), but they fit with all the rest and so they qualify as religion. Some forms of Taoism don’t have any particular rituals, but they do have the other elements, and so they qualify as religion. But religions like Hinduism and Christianity are closer to the ideal type of religion than, for example, Theravada Buddhism (which lacks the supernatural) and Scientology (which lacks ritual).

Many believers are quick to say their faith is unique and not like “those other religions.” For example, evangelical Christians in America are fond of saying that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Well, so be it, but Christianity is most definitely a religion, too. Yes, Christianity is unique because all religions are unique. Our goal here will be to appreciate and investigate their similarities and their differences.

Given the above ideal type, then, we might describe the following traditions as “religious”:

We can also see that the following probably do not qualify as “religious”:

  • Atheism / secular humanism (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)
  • Environmentalism / deep ecology (no supernatural, no ritual, often no community practice)
  • Transhumanism (no supernatural, no ritual, no community practice)
  • UFOlogy (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)
  • Science (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, not much ritual)
  • Patriotism (no necessary supernatural, no universal diagnosis or prescription)
  • The paranormal (no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh December 1, 2009 at 10:06 pm

I like this post.


lukeprog December 1, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Thanks, Josh.

I know it’s annoying to start things off with definitions, but I tried to make this more useful and compact than anything else on the subject.


Rhys Wilkins December 2, 2009 at 1:35 am

Top job luke, as usual.

Just wondering, would you consider naturalistic pantheism to be a religion?


Roman December 2, 2009 at 1:37 am

I agree, this is good, I like it.


Leon December 2, 2009 at 1:59 am

Nice post.

I agree that atheism is not a religion by your definition, but secular humanism usually does have a diagnosis (irrationalism, prejudice, unreason, religion) and prescription (reason, human rights, naturalism, progress, etc.). Perhaps it’s more political, or perhaps a “lifestance”.

I think atheism and secular humanism are quite different — and neither entails the other.

Also, I think point 2 is worded in a Christianity-centric way. Where is the salvation or liberation in Judaism? Or any of the folk religions? Also, the idea that there’s something “essentially” wrong seems to work well for Buddhism and Christianity, but less so for the others.


lukeprog December 2, 2009 at 2:02 am


Of course, it depends which definition we’re using. If we’re using the ideal type defined above, probably not. Confucianism is kinda borderline by the above ideal types.


Edson December 2, 2009 at 3:41 am

“a diagnosis of something essentially wrong with the human condition, and a prescription for salvation or liberation from it”

How do you think about this? Aren’t there anything essentially wrong with the human condition?

“Atheism / secular humanism (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)
“Science (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, not much ritual)”

As per your definition, yes, these are not religions. And for that, they are not in a business of diagnosing, or proposing a solution, for what is essentially wrong with humans.

Now most people of this world, ancients and moderns, kings and servants, scientists and laymen, from East to West, feel like there is something wrong with humanity. And it is for that matter that there has been religions, and they will continue to exist until that fundamental problem troubling humankind is treated.

If you dont believe that, and claim that Atheism is and should be a default, enlightened position, you must be able to tell why the majority of the citizens of the world are religious folks and/or the future and relevance of Atheism to the majority of this world.


Anonymous December 2, 2009 at 7:24 am

Here’s a great quote that shows how NOT to define religion:

“When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion, and when I say the Christian religion, I mean the Protestant religion, and when I say the Protestant religion, I mean the Church of England!” (Reverend Parson Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s novel _Tom Jones_).


Charles December 2, 2009 at 8:10 am


Unless you’re on the level of David Hume, you need evolution before you can be an atheist. The parents of our parents of our parents didn’t know about evolution. People tend to adopt the religion of their parents. It’s as simple as that.


Mark December 2, 2009 at 9:32 am

Lukeprog said: “We can also see that the following probably do not qualify as “religious”: Atheism / secular humanism (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)

Huh? No supernatural? You don’t call magically “good” genetics supernatural? You don’t call a magically spontaneous big bang ex nihilo supernatural?

Atheism is definitely a religion. It worships the same great universal force theists do, it’s just too arrogant to give it a name.

Just keepin’ it real lukeprog.


Jeff H December 2, 2009 at 10:13 am


Your straw men should go to Oz to get a brain. Thanks.


Haukur December 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

So Shinto is a less “ideal” religion than Christianity because it doesn’t have the idea of original sin? This does not look to me like a good way to demarcate religion.


Rhys Wilkins December 2, 2009 at 1:45 pm


It is foolish to call atheism a ‘religion’. IF atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby, or off is a TV channel, or bald is a hair color. Atheism is much too vague an general to be labeled a religion, since it only involves the lack of one belief. Religion involves a set of beliefs.


daniel December 3, 2009 at 12:52 am

I do like ideal type (or even better, polythetic) classification. It’s a mistake to unthinkingly exclude intent, though. Can there be a practiced religion whose believers don’t believe they are practicing a religion? You’ve got a starter definition, but I think American civics would end up as a religion here.

In basic structure:

1. Cult of the wisdom of the founding fathers ascribes them a buddha-like enlightenment of universal values for the human condition. We have a Sinai complex: time is either pre- or post-revelation, with ongoing interpretation of revelation in a ritual manner by the supreme court.
2. See Declaration of Independence.
3. Elections, pledge of allegiance, removing hat during the national anthem, etc.
4. July 4th, Memorial Day, etc


lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 7:31 am


That’s a very good point. I was going to do a post on that, but I probably should add an intent clause right here.

But the problem with an intent clause is that some Christians will say they’re practicing a relationship not a religion, some Muslims will say it’s a way of life not a religion, some Hindus will say it’s all Dharma, not a religion…


Sabio Lantz December 3, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I took a stab at defining religion using a “Syndrome Model” in order to capture some of its nebulous nature. If you get a chance, see if you like the direction of such an approach.


lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 9:14 pm


Excellent work! I have not seen that before.


tony hackfprd September 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

did any of you guys see The Housewives of Miami last night?


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