The term religion evokes a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, with its paradigmatic examples being world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Defining what is a religion raises many questions, including how sharply to draw the line around what is religious, and whether to define it broadly or narrowly. Some scholars advocate a “foggy-edged” approach to begin with, and then move to more precise definitions once study has advanced (Harrison 1912, Weber 1922).
Sociologists and anthropologists often take the view that, rather than a belief in a supernatural being, religion is an abstract set of values and experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. It is a way of understanding the world and one’s place in it, as well as a vehicle for self-identification, articulation of values, and experiential validation.
Those who believe in this view of religion are often agnostics or atheists, and some would even go so far as to call it a social construct. In contrast, a small but influential group of philosophers have taken the matter seriously, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.
The scholarly debate about what is religion is an important issue. But it is also a thorny and controversial subject in the daily lives of individuals, as evidenced by how the religion question is raised when discussing abortion, same-sex marriage, or other issues. For example, in the US, 23% of adults are religiously unaffiliated, and only one member of Congress is a theist (Kyrsten Sinema). In many European countries, a more secular outlook has become the norm, and there are few believers among the country’s leaders.