How to define or even explain religion is a very difficult task as it is so diverse in historical development, so culturally varied, that all definitions developed so far often failed to encompass it adequately.
In its simplest and purest form, religion is an emotional attitude towards the unknown and the uncontrolled.
It is a universal phenomenon that exists in some or the other form everywhere but varies in character. At the one extreme, it is concerned exclusively with the demon world. At the other, it is social and personal and related with supernatural constructs—transmigration existence of God and soul, origin of universe, etc.
Pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim (1916) defined it as ‘… a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, uniting into a single moral community all those who adhere to those beliefs and practices’.
Anything that people in a society consider to be sacred and celebrate in recognized rites becomes religion. Religion thus rests on beliefs, sacred things, prescribed rites and officially consecrated individuals—priest—to celebrate those rites. Durkheim believed that anything can be sacred. Sacredness is not a property that is inherent in an object.
It exists in the mind of the beholder. Thus, a tree, an animal, a pebble or a piece of wood may be considered sacred.
In Durkheim’s view, the world is divided into two distant categories:
(i) The sacred, supernatural, divine and spiritual, and
(ii) the profane, natural, human and material.
For early anthropologist E.B. Tylor, the belief in supernatural power is religion. Functionalists like Kingsley Davis (1949) believes that religion is an attempt to transcends the tedium of everyday life; that is, it involves a belief in and response to some kind of beyond’.
It is any set of coherent answers to existential dilemmas (problems)—birth, sickness, ageing and death. It is human response to those things which concern us ultimately. It is a collective way of dealing with the unknown and unknowable aspects of human life—with the mysteries of life. It is also concerned with making of moral decisions.
Thus, religion entails a system of beliefs, practices, rituals, a form of worship and symbols, obedience to divine commandments and a concern with transcendental realm that is beyond the rational and empirical.
It can take many forms, such as bathing in the holy Ganges (Hindus), offering prayers in the temple, church or mosque or performing some sacrificial rituals, participating in Holy Communion (Christians), or performing the Mitzvah ceremony (Jews), etc.