Religion – A System of Beliefs and Practices


Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that involves devotional activity, prayer, sacrifice, charity, community, and moral instruction. It is a human phenomenon that manifests itself in all cultures and throughout history, often taking on a variety of shapes and forms. Religion is a social institution that may also be a cultural artifact, but like all social institutions it is constantly evolving and adapting to the changing realities of people’s lives.

Some scholars argue that to understand religion as a set of beliefs or subjective mental states is to have a Protestant bias and that scholars should therefore shift attention to the institutions and disciplinary structures that manage people’s religious/spiritual activities. However, this approach is not without its problems: while it is true that religions are social institutions that must be managed by a variety of institutional mechanisms, it is difficult to define or describe them in terms of institutional structures alone. Furthermore, while some institutions (e.g. economics) change radically from one era to the next, religions tend to evolve at a slower pace and may retain older features while adding new ones.

Another issue is that substantive definitions of religion, such as Edward Tylor’s belief in spiritual beings or Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern, are not only monothetic but also ethnocentric. They privilege Western religions and fail to take into account faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as Buddhism and Jainism.

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