What is a religion?

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What is a religion?

The question, what is a religion, is answered differently by different people. This is my attempt to define religion in a way that both fits with the modern understanding of the concept, while also trying to be as objective and non-arbitrary as possible. My current definition can be worded as follows:

A religion is a structure of rituals, expected behaviors, and faith in the supernatural.

Below I describe the four elements I believe are necessary for a religion, and beliefs that are often labeled as a religion, but don't meet this definition.

Necessary Elements

To reach this conclusion, I tried to tease out the necessary elements of things traditionally described as religions. I don't think it is possible to call something a religion unless it is structured, has rituals, expected behaviors, and faith in the supernatural. There can be all sorts of additional aspects, but these four elements must be present. Below I describe each element in detail.


All religions are structured. That is, they have systematic and ordered flow. This is the bureaucracy that holds the religion together and ensures that the rituals, expected behaviors, and faith in the supernatural are all essentially the same for everyone in the religion. They usually feature a hierarchical power structure which guides the religion and makes rulings on which rituals, behaviors, and beliefs are "canon." Some religions are extremely structured (in Catholicism, the Vatican has detailed their official position on pretty much everything), while others are much less structured (Quakers have a limited structure). When there is a big enough disagreement to the system inside a religion, you get a schism and the religion splits in two.

Religions have to be systematic or you get what people often call "spiritual, but not religious." That is, they still perform rituals, have expected behaviors, and have faith in the supernatural, but there is no way to check to see if anything they're doing is "proper," so everything quickly becomes muddled and the rituals, behaviors, and faiths become inconsistent and contradictory. Imagine what would happen to Catholicism if the Vatican suddenly eliminated all church hierarchy and said all beliefs are equally valid.


All religions have rituals. These can include gatherings, ceremonies, songs, dances, gestures, chants, sayings, and the like. These are preformed during major life events like birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, as well as during daily events like waking up, meals, and going to sleep, and during events directly related to the religion itself like joining the religion, entering a place of worship, or being kicked out of the religion. Rituals serve as a constant reaffirmation of the follower's adherence to the religion and give them a sense of belonging.

Religions have to have rituals because they anchor the religion in a daily life of the adherent. If Muslims eliminated declarations of faith, daily prayers, weddings, funerals, Ramadan, mosque gatherings, pilgrimages to Mecca, and everything else, the religion would quickly evaporate. In fact, I can't even think of an organization that is structured, has expected behaviors, and faith in the supernatural, but doesn't also have rituals.

Expected Behaviors

All religions have behaviors that are expected to be followed. Religions refer to their expected behaviors as morality and view anyone not following the expected behaviors as sinful, heretical, blasphemous, immoral, etc. These behaviors are originally rooted in the religion's scripture and traditions, but their interpretation slowly shifts to better fit the culture at large (though usually lagging behind). The expected behaviors invariably require adherence to the structure, ritual, and faith supernatural of the religion, but they also include common societal norms (no murder, rape, theft, etc.), and varied archaic behaviors based on the parochial beliefs of the people who founded the religion.

Religions have to have expected behaviors because they prevent adherents from challenging the system, rituals, and faith. If there were a structure with rituals and faith, but with no way to rebuke unwanted behavior, it would fall apart. How long would Mormonism last if believers were no longer discouraged from accepting the historical consensus of their religion or seeking evidence for their faith in the supernatural?

Faith In the Supernatural

All religions have faith in the supernatural. This means adherents believe in the supernatural without credible evidence, and often in spite of contradictory evidence. The faith is usually in gods and souls, but frequenting includes miracles and magic, as well as various "evil" supernatural entities like devils and demons. Most religions have faith in gods, but several Eastern religions have only various types of souls and spirits. Some cultures, like North Korea, claim to be non-religious and lack faith in the supernatural, but, in reality, they have faith that their leader has supernatural powers.

Religions have to have faith in the supernatural because it serves as a fail-safe for all the religion's claims. By definition, the supernatural can never be demonstrated as false, so the religion can always fall back on its supernatural foundation as a means to enforce its structure, rituals, and expected behaviors even when they contradict evidence or rationality. If faith in the supernatural were removed, and a religion were based only on natural demonstrable phenomena, some of the structure and expected behavior, and nearly all of the ritual, would be discarded.

Unnecessary Elements

There are many other elements that are often argued to be necessary for something to be a religion. To determine which are necessary, I try to think of what the belief system would be like if you eliminated the element in question. Would it still be a religion?


Religions need some form of supernatural belief in which to have faith, but it doesn't have to be gods. Several religions have faith in souls, ghosts, reincarnation, and the like without believing in massively powerful supernatural agents.


Prayer, meditation, and the like are common to most religions, but not necessary. Even if Christians stopped praying, they would still follow the bulk of the New Testament, have a church structure, have holidays, believe Jesus performed miracles, etc.


Although worship is extremely common in religions, it is not necessary. Many Eastern religions do not have gods, and, while they honor and respect the founders of their religions, do not worship them. Buddhism, for example, still has structure, rituals, expected behaviors, and faith in the supernatural, even though Buddhists don't worship Gautama Buddha (although some sects do). Imagine if Christians stopped worshiping Jesus. They would still pray, go to church, celebrate holidays, follow the ten commandments, believe that Jesus performed miracles and was a good teacher, etc.

What Isn't a Religion?

Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism have all four of the necessary elements to varying degrees, and are therefore religions by my definition. The following concepts are often called religions, but are missing one or more of my necessary elements, thereby preventing them from being a religion.

  • Atheism - Lacks all four necessary elements.
  • Naturalism - Lacks all four elements.
  • New age - Has ritual, expected beliefs, and faith in the supernatural, but generally doesn't have structure. However, sometimes small-scale structures form, effectively creating a religion, though they usually fall apart when the charismatic leader dies.
  • Political parties - Democrats, Republicans, Torys, Socialists, and the like have structure, ritual, and expected behaviors, but they lack faith in the supernatural. However, some of the more extreme Fascists effectively require a supernatural faith in the leaders of the State.
  • Science - Science has structure, and you could argue that the scientific method and peer-review are a form of ritual, and that scientific ethics are expected behavior, but it lacks faith in the supernatural or even the ability to have faith. As you move from science to pseudo-science, you gain faith in the supernatural, but you lose structure.
  • Secular humanism - Has structure and expected behaviors, but lacks both ritual and supernatural beliefs.