What Is Religion?


Religion is the voluntary submission of oneself to that free, supernatural Being (or beings) on whom man realizes his dependence and in whose power he recognizes his highest perfection and happiness. It involves the exercise of the intellect, imagination, and emotions. The belief in a Divine end enlivens the will, while the conviction of the possibility of bringing about that end stimulates hope. This faith in Divine providence engenders devotion, the earnest pursuit of a spiritual ideal and the consciousness of acquired friendship with it.

In this respect, religion differs from magic, the attempt to make uncontrollable parts of the environment directly subject to human manipulation through ritual. For example, cave paintings showing animals on which hunters hoped to place their arrows suggest that early humans tried to manipulate the weather or ensure success in hunting by asking for help from a god or goddess.

Some critics take the view that there is no such thing as religion, that it is merely a label applied to different cultures’ ways of life and that its semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. These criticisms are not without merit; they are, however, based on stipulative definitions of religion that fail to acknowledge that there is always some kind of religious life and, more importantly, that the concept of “religion” cannot be adequately defined in substantive terms without reference to this life. A more useful approach, akin to Ninian Smart’s model of the three Cs—truth, beauty, and goodness—is to add a fourth, materialist dimension.