What is Religion? Definition, Features, Sacred and Profane, Perspectives

What is Religion?

Religion is a system of beliefs and practices based upon the idea of the sacred and profane. In sociological terms, religion is a system of beliefs, practices symbols, and rituals that somehow relate to the community’s orientation to the supernatural force that governs the universe.

The term ‘religion’ has been derived from the Latin word ‘religio’ meaning ‘respect for what is sacred’ and ‘ religare’ meaning `to bind’.

From the beginning of human evolution to date, religion has been an institutionalized system of beliefs, symbols, values, and practices mediated through Vedas, Purans, Upanishads, and the Geeta among Hindus, the Bible among Christians, the Q’uran among Islam, and Tripitaka among Buddhists.

According to Durkheim “Religion is a unified system of beliefs practices relative to sacred things, uniting into a single, moral community all those who adhere to those beliefs and practices”. According to James Frazer, “Religion is a belief in powers superior to man, which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and human life.”


  • It is one of the strong social institutions.
  • Religion binds society.
  • All religions seek purity of lineage.
  • All religions have certain rules of worship.
  • All religions seek to flourish art and architecture.
  • It defines what is sacred and profane.
  • It upholds social norms.
  • Reverence towards supernatural beings.
  • It is a road to spiritual serenity and an inner journey.
  • Godly power surmounts Devil power.

Sacred and Profane

French sociologist, Emile Durkheim extensively studied the functions of religion and was among the first to distinguish between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. According to him all aspects of human experiences can be divided into these two opposite categories. Let’s take a look at these two concepts in more detail.


The sacred, for Durkheim, refers to things set apart by man, including religious beliefs, rites, duties, or anything socially defined as requiring special religious treatment. The sacred has extra-ordinary, super-natural, and often dangerous qualities and can usually be approached only through some form of rituals such as prayer, incantation, or ceremonial cleansing. Almost anything can be sacred: a god, a rock, a cross, the moon, the earth, a king, a tree, an animal or bird, or a symbol such as a Swastik. These are sacred only because some community has marked them as sacred. Once established as sacred they become symbols of religious beliefs, sentiments, and practices.


Profane is anything ordinary. It is a part of the ordinary realm rather than the supernatural world. The profane or ordinary or unholy embrace those ideas, persons, practices, and things that are regarded with an everyday attitude of commonness utility, and familiarity. The unholy or profane is also believed to contaminate the holy or sacred. A rock, the moon, a king, a tree, or a symbol may also be considered profane. It means something becomes sacred or profane only when it is socially defined as such by a community of believers.

In other words,

Most things we come across in life can be distinguished as quite ordinary. If you think about the everyday things a person does – driving a car, going to work, checking your email – these things are all quite ordinary and are included as an ordinary element of everyday life. Hence, those routine aspects (ordinary elements) of our day-to-day life are profane and those things which are defined as extraordinary, inspiring, a sense of awe, reverence, and even fear are sacred.

E.g. reading our favorite romance novel would be considered profane. Reading the Bible is sacred for Christians in the same way Muslims pay tribute to the Quran. Religion, therefore, is a social institution involving beliefs and practices based on recognizing the sacred.

Major Religions in the World and their Sects

A sect is a religious organization formed when members of an existing religious group break away.

  • Hinduism, its sects are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Tantrism
  • Buddhism, its sects are Hinyan, Mahayan, Bajrayan, Tantrayan, and Lamaism
  • Christianity, its sects are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox
  • Islam, Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Sufi Islam

Components/ Elements of Religion

Every religion is made up of certain elements. These elements are as follows;

Beliefs: A belief is a conviction. Religious beliefs refer to the belief in the existence of supernatural powers, which take the shape of divine beings i.e. God. Different societies and different religions have different sets of religious beliefs.

Rituals: Every religion is associated with a set of practices, rites, and rituals, which are ceremonies or repetitive practices. Religious rituals are prescribed sacred acts.

Symbols: Every religion uses certain symbols, with which it is usually associated. The cross denotes Christianity, the Muslim symbol is the crescent moon and star, the Hindus have the Swastik.

Organization: Most modern societies have organized religious groups, which are used to affirm religious beliefs and sentiments.

Emotions: All religions evoke strong emotions in the believers or followers. Generally, religious emotions are associated with things that are sacred and close to the hearts of the believers.

Functions/Significance of Religion

  • It gives formal approval to existing social arrangements. In other words, it justifies our society’s norms and customs.
  • Many social customs and rituals are based on religion. This idea is called legitimation.
  • Religion brings a sense of unity. We unite together and take care of each other because of this. For example: charities, friendships, etc.
  • Religious practices appear to have enormous potential to address today’s social problems, as it provides a sense of understanding. A reason why we are here and why we exist.
  • Religious practices acts as control mechanism. Religion alone can control human social crime in the name of God and salvation (Mokshya), that even tons of army force or police troops of state cannot do.

Theoretical Approach/Perspectives to Religion

Functionalist Approach to Religion

The functionalist perspective, which originated from Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, highlights the important social role of religions. According to Durkheim, religion binds or integrates society. However, the major functions of religion in society includes;

  • Religion provides social cohesion by maintaining social solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs.
  • It provides social control to enforce religious-based morals and norms and help maintain conformity in society. The fear of punishment from supernatural powers for violating religious rule is an effective means of controlling the behaviour of individuals within society.
  • Religious beliefs helps soothe the emotions of humans in the face of disappointment and sufferings. So, it helps individuals to overcome pain, fear and anxiety.
  • It gives people, the explanations regarding the road to salvation.
  • It provides guidelines regarding everyday life, behaviour, behaviour towards others, and so on.
  • All religions promote welfare of people, and inculcate a desire to help the needy.
  • It is an effective means of preserving or conserving the values and morals of life.

Hence, Functionalists believe religion meets many important needs for people, including group cohesion and companionship.

Criticism of functionalist approach to religion: Religion overlooks religion’s dysfunctions. For instance, religion can be used to justify terrorism and violence. It has often been the justification of, and motivation for, war.

Conflict Approach to Religion

Conflict perspective originated in the work of Karl Marx. According to Marx religion is used by the rulers or powerful (bourgeoisie) to justify economic, political, and social advantages over the poor and weak people thus keep away from rebelling.

Marx once declared that religion is the “opium of the people.” He viewed religion as teaching people to accept their current situations in life, no matter how bad it is, therefore, maintaining the status quo. Conflict theorists viewed religion as an institution that helps maintain social inequality by justifying unequal social structures, like the caste system.

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