What is Religion?

So, what is religion? What a good question that is. Unfortunately, as good as the question is, it is not so easy to answer. The problem is, there is no general agreement on this planet’s surface regarding the nature and purpose of religion. Most attempts to define religion are, unfortunately, confused and/or confusing (see for example this horrific attempt). A few fair a bit better. Some of the better attempts will tell you that religion is a neurotic (even psychotic) delusion (Freud, 1961), an “opiate of the masses” (Marx, 1978), and even an ideological vehicle for Capitalism (Weber, 1904 (1995)). Some people even say that only really vile and stupid people (Dawkins, 2006a, 2006b) follow religion. According to some, religion is an anachronistic and primitive hold out from a more primitive and irrational time (Berger, 1969). For these people, religion is stupid and, because it is stupid and irrational, religion is destined to fall away before the inexorable march of modern secular/rational thought (Bruce, 2002; Chaves, 1994). It shouldn’t be too long now, according to secularization theorists, before religion disappears in a puff of gray and white secular smoke.

But is religion really an ideological prop for capitalism or a stupid delusion, and is it going to go away as the secularization theorists would have us believe. The answer to that is a resounding no. While religion may, at times, be a delusional opiate, and while it may not always represent the most positive impulses of human nature, religion is not disappearing, secularization is not getting the upper hand, and even very smart people often get themselves involved (Ecklund, 2012). Church attendance may be dropping off, but “spirituality” is alive and well (Heelas & Woodhead, 2005), atheism has not expanded significantly,[1] and the secularization impulse is arguably losing ground (Berger, 1999). Clearly the world is not beating a pathway to the “higher rationality” of the atheist perspective.

So what is going on? If religion is merely stupid ideology, why do so many people stubbornly maintain their irrationality? If you ask other people, religion hangs on because religion is, in one way or another, the word of a higher God/Power. These people, these religious insiders, believe that religion represents a manifestation of God/Spirit on Earth. For these people religion (and spirituality) is some sort of revealed “truth of God/Krishna/Consciousness” put on Earth so that people could follow and find their way “home”. This sounds nice, and it may be true to some extent (Sharp, 2014a), but the problem is that religion is often more a reflection of earthly realities (Sosteric, 2013) and earthly violence (Ellens, 2001) than it is of any manifested divine word. In other words, it is often a hypocrisy. People say it is all about love and glory and God, but then they use it to drive crusades, invasions, exploitation, and jihad.

And that’s pretty much the state of the field. People either believe that religion is irrational delusion/ideological opiate, or they believe it is based upon some sort of revealed word of a higher being. Personally, I am not satisfied with either of these answers because I feel that both answers to the question “what is religion” are inadequate. They both leave too many things unexplained and they fly directly in the face of the easily available and obvious evidence. The problem with those who believe religion is irrational and stupid is that billions of people cling tenaciously to religion and spirituality. Unless we want to argue that the billions of people who follow a religion or spirituality are stupid, then this is an untenable, even arrogant, position. There must be something more to religion otherwise why do people follow. On the other hand, those who argue religion/spirituality is revealed word run into problems as well. If its revealed word, if the priest is a representative of God, and the pope is a reflection of divinity on Earth, why so much pedophilia, pain, and violence? People like Richard Dawkins, strident as they may be, have a point. There is a lot of violence in spirituality and religion. And even overlooking that, you’d think, after 2,000 years in the case of Christendom, or 10,000+ years in the case of some older traditions like Hinduism, the word of God would have sunk in and we’d all be living in utopia. Clearly that has not happened. So again, unless you want to argue that people are just too stupid to understand simple English (or Sanskrit, or whatever), something else must be going on?

But what?

Well, I have an idea about what religion is that fits the evidence and that doesn’t require us to theorize about the general stupidity of the human race. Before I can reveal what I think however, we need to consider two things. On the one hand we need to consider social institutions and on the other we need to consider human psychology. We will start by learning something about institutions.


If we want to understand what religion is, the first thing we have to understand is that religion is an institution. Since religion is an institution, you have to understand what aninstitution is, and that’s not difficult. An institution is simply a set of formal and informal rules, guidelines, norms, values, and behavioral and psychological scripts that are aimed at achieving some sort of human goal. To simplify, an institution is a set of rules and guidelines, formalized and enforced, that are designed to meet some kind of need. It may sound complicated, but it is not. For example, consider the institution of modern education. An elementary school is setup to meet society’s need for an educated workforce. Children go to school to learn from teachers, and the express and overt goal of their enforced attendance and rule compliance is to ensure a population with enough education to take over society’s jobs. Schools meet society’s need for an educated population--simple. Similarly, a hospital is an institution setup to meet the individual and collective need for health and healing. Families, a classic institution, are setup to meet peoples' emotional, psychological, physical, and sometimes spiritual needs. The same can be said for all other institutions. Institutions are setup to meet human needs.[2]

In this regard, religion is exactly an institution. Like all other institutions, a religion is a formalized set of rules, norms, guidelines, and behavioral scripts. Also like other institutions, religion is ostensibly set up to meet a human need. The question now is, what is the need that the institution of religion is setup to fulfill? Some, like Sigmund Freud, might say it is setup to meet infantile needs; others, like Karl Marx, might say it is set up to meet the capitalist’s ideology and excuse[3]. Both may be true, but I believe that religion/spirituality meets needs beyond the capitalist’s need for ideology or the childish need for cosmic succor. To be sure, some people may choose religion for infantile reasons and others may be duped, but a lot of people follow a religion or spirituality for imminently rational and reasonable reasons and unless we want to ignore the logic and rationality of the majority (something that I would hope would be anathema to all persons), we have to ask the question “what need does religion fill”.

Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchies of Human Needs

To answer that question “what need does religion fill”, let us take a step back into the intellectual world of Abraham Maslow. Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist famous for his work on conceptualizing human needs. He is most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs. While thinking about the human individual, Maslow theorized that all humans had a complex set of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs that we were all biologically driven to satisfy, and that we had to satisfy if we were to remain healthy. Maslow organized these human needs into two hierarchies. The first hierarchy he called the basic needs hierarchy. In this hierarchy, which is very well known,[5] he included the following five sets of needs (Maslow, 1943).

  • Physiological needs,
  • Safety needs,
  • Love needs,
  • Esteem needs
  • Self-Actualization needs

For Maslow, we had to fulfill each of these “basic needs” if we were going to be healthy. For example, we all basic physiological needs for food, water, and shelter. If we were to be happy and healthy, we needed to satisfy these needs. By the same token, we all had love needs and self-esteem needs. We need to feel loved and accepted by others and we needed to feel good about ourselves. Maslow felt that if any of these needs were thwarted, mental illness would result (Maslow, 1943).

Maslow proposed a second hierarchy of needs, the Cognitive Needs HierarchyMost people, psychologists included, think that Maslow stated only a single hierarchy of basic needs. However, the vast majority of people[4] overlook a second hierarchy of needs that Maslow proposed in his original 1943 article (Maslow, 1943). Maslow called this second hierarchy of needs the cognitive needs hierarchy. Maslow included two cognitive needs in this second hierarchy, these being the

  • Need to Know and the
  • Need to Understand

Although Maslow based his statement of these cognitive needs on his clinical evidence, these needs are self-evident and self-explanatory. The need to know is simple human curiosity as displayed even at an early age by any small child. This is the "basic desire to know, to be aware of reality, to get the facts, to satisfy curiosity, or as Wertheimer phrases it, to see rather than to be blind." (Maslow, 1943, p. 385). Maslow noted that the need to know was not the only cognitive need. Maslow observed that "even after we know, we are impelled to know more and more minutely and microscopically on the one hand, and on the other, more and more extensively in the direction of a world philosophy, religion, etc." (Maslow, 1943, p. 385). In other words, it was never enough to just know something, we also had to understand. According to Maslow, "The facts that we acquire, if they are isolated or atomistic, inevitably get theorized about, and either analyzed or organized or both. This process has been phrased by some as the search for 'meaning.' We shall then postulate a desire to understand, to systematize, to organize, to analyze, to look for relations and meanings"(Maslow, 1943, p. 385).[5]

I don’t think anybody would care to argue that humans don’t have these cognitive needs. Anybody who has ever raised children will know that one of the most persistent and sometime annoying questions that kids can ask is, “Why?” Why this, why that, why is the sky blue, why is the sun yellow, why are some children poor, why are we born at all, why do we die, why are we here, and so on and on and on. Many of the questions children ask are mundane of course, but many are not. Many are what I would call “big questions", the ultimate questions of existence and creation. Children have a powerful, connotative need to know about all things, and this includes a need to know about their purpose, about nature, about “god,” about consciousness, about existence, and so on. They are driven to answer these questions and they don’t stop asking them until they find answers that satisfy them, that satisfy these needs.

What is Religion?

At the outset of this article I asked the question, "What is religion?" Our first way-point on the journey to answering that question was to say that religion was an institution. As noted, institutions are sets of norms, values, behaviors, and rules setup with the ostensible purpose of meeting human needs. Once we establish that religion is an institution, the question becomes what human need(s) is religion setup to fulfil. After a brief consideration of Maslow’s hierarchies, we can say with relative confidence that religion is setup to meet the human need to know and understand. For better or worse, religion provides answers to the big questions that we all ask. This seems self-evident. Most people involved in a religion are there (unless they are children brought by their parents, or coerced into some cult) believe that their religion provides a reflection of ultimate truths. That is, their religion provides them answers to their big questions. Questions such as “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “What happens after death?” “Is there a higher power?” “How was the universe formed?” are all answered, and sometimes violently enforced, within the institutional confines of religion. As a sociologist, and as a human who (as a child) was forced to practice a religion, I can see quite clearly that not only is religion an institution, but also that religion attempts to satisfy our need to know and understand by answering the big questions of life. Therefore, as a sociologist, I am comfortable defining religion as follows: religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence. Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence

You can see the basic and self-evident truth of this definition quite clearly if you examine any of the institutionalized belief systems of the world. Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Catholicism, and all others provide ready-made answers to the big questions, thereby satisfying our need to know and understand. An example might help to illustrate. Catholicism is a religion I’m quite familiar with since I grew up in it and although I know longer have “faith” in the answers of the Catholic Church, I still remember the answers it provided, and here they are:

Is there a higher power?

Yes, there is God.

What is the nature of God?

God is a celestial patriarch who wants his children to be good, and who will punish them severely if they are not.

Who am I

You are a child of God

Where did I come from?

God created you.

What’s the purpose of life?

To serve God and redeem yourself.

How was the universe formed?

God said, let there be light, and the universe emerged out of nothingness in a magical puff of light.

As you can see, Catholicism, like all other religions and spiritualties, is an institution that answers the big questions.

What about Me?

At this point you should have a very clear understanding of the core nature of religion. Religion is an institution setup to satisfy our human need to know and understand by providing ready-made answers to the big questions. You can quibble about who made the answers (i.e. priests, elites, or God), but I don’t think it is possible to argue this definition. I think whether you are a member of the faithful, or a secular critic, we can all agree with this basic definition. The definition covers the essential core and it provides a positive definition that removes much of the academic stigma associated with following a religious or spiritual path. Indeed, using this definition, we can see that following a religion or spirituality is less about infantile delusion and ideological indoctrination and more about an instinctual (Maslow would say connotative) need to know and understand. Of course, the scientifically minded reader may scoff at some of the answers provided by some traditional religions, and that’s fine. I have said that religion is an institution that provides ready-made answers, I did not say it provided the right answers. Indeed, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, religion does not provide satisfactory answers to the big questions. My own view is that religious “truths” are too entangled with elite interests, patriarchal bias, and psychological dysfunction be anything but a rough approximation at best.[6] But the fact that religion and spirituality are complex and contested doesn’t invalidate the definition of religion, and it doesn’t invalidate our human need to know or understand. Indeed, we all search until we find answers that satisfy, and when we become dissatisfied we search around some more.

My own biography is ample testimony to the fact that people strive to know and understand. I started off in the Catholic faith with Catholic answers, but I became disaffected with the Catholic Church, and dissatisfied with the Catholic answers at a very early age. Dissatisfaction of my need to know and understand did not lead to inaction, however. From the age of about fifteen to twenty-five I looked at the numerous other institutionalized offerings to see if what they had to offer could satisfy my cognitive drives. I looked at Eckankar, the nascent New Age movement, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Baha’I faith, and other big as well as little traditions. I struggled to know and understand and it was only when I entered university and was confronted with the critical sociology of Karl Marx and his infamous statement about religion being the opiate of the masses that I became satisfied. I thought finally I knew what it was about. Life begins with birth and ends with death, and in between there is a global class war. This critical sociological perspective, coupled with a scientific atheism, satisfied my need to know and understand for a long time, but not forever. In my late thirties I once again because dissatisfied. At that point several mystical experiences “blew my head open” and put me into contact with what can only be described as the mystical and divine realities of this amazing and glorious universe. Scoff if you will, but I am not a stupid person. At the point where my direct personal experience contradicted the ready-made answers provided by the church of Science, I began my search again. The only difference was this time I did not go to any religion or spirituality (because I had already long ago decided the answers the traditions provide were unsatisfactory), I “went within” and began to develop my own answers.

I talk about my own mystical experiences, how these experiences challenged my settled atheism, and also some of the framework for the development of an “authentic spirituality” I have been working on, elsewhere (Sharp, 2010, 2011, 2014b). Here I just want to underline the definition of religion as an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions and ask the reader to consider this definition in the context of their own biography. I believe that if you do, the definition of religion provided here will exactly match your lived experience. We all approach religion in exactly the same way, as an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions. We stick with a religion or move on based exclusively on our “faith” in its answers. If we don’t have faith in the answers, we become dissatisfied, and we search around until we find some answers that do. Sometimes this leads us to other religions (Richard Gere the famous Hollywood actor got his satisfaction in Buddhism, Tom Cruise in Scientology), sometimes this leads us to science (which I will argue in a future article is merely another institutionalized attempt to satisfy our need to know and understand), and sometimes we just give up in agnostic frustration. In all of this it is not stupidity, delusion, or ideology that drives us, it is a basic cognitive need to know (Maslow, 1943), acted upon by intelligent and rational people (Ecklund, 2012; Ecklund & Long, 2011), that moves us. Religion (and science for that matter) are merely institutionalized attempt to provide these answers.

Of course, as good and positive as this definition is, it is also incomplete. As noted, religion is a complicated social institution and it does other things besides answer the big questions. As Marx, Berger, and others have noted, religion provides an “opiate” for the masses (Marx, 1978), it provides ideological support for capitalism (Berger, 1969; Sharp, 2013), and it drives violence and war (Ellens, 2001) in service to the Family.[7] It even provides community, social (Durkheim, 1965 (1912)), and psychological services (food banks, communities to belong to, support, etc.) for the people the people and community it serves. But even within the complex (and often contested) nature of religion and spirituality the core truth remains. Religion, for all its various forms and functions is, at root, a social institution set up to fill our need to know and understand by proving ready-made answers the big questions of our existence.


Berger, P. (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books.

Berger, P. (1999). The Descularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Bruce, S. (2002). God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Oxfford: Blackwell.

Chaves, M. (1994). Secularization as Declining Religious Authority. Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.

Dawkins, R. (2006a). The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

Dawkins, R. (2006b). Religion's Real Child Abuse. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2014, from http://richarddawkins.net/articles/118

Durkheim, E. (1965 (1912)). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Ecklund, E. H. (2012). What Scientists Really Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ecklund, E. H., & Long, E. (2011). Scientists and Spirituality. Sociology of Religion, 72(3), 253-274.

Ellens, J. H. (2001). The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

(Vol. 1). Westport, CT: Praegar.

Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.

Heelas, P., & Woodhead, L. (2005). The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. 2005: Blackwell.

Hunsberger, B., & Altemeyer, B. (2006). Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers. New York: Prometheus Books.

Marx, K. (1978). The German Ideology. In R. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Sharp, M. (2010). The Rocket Scientists' Guide to Authentic Spirituality. St. Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press.

Sharp, M. (2011). The Rocket Scientists' Guide to Discernment. St. Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press.

Sharp, M. (2013). The Rocket Scientists' Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt. St Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press.

Sharp, M. (2014a). Everybody has a mystical experience. Retrieved from http://www.michaelsharp.org/everybody-has-a-mystical-experience/

Sharp, M. (2014b). Lightning Path Book One - Introduction to the Lightning Path (Vol. 1). St. Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press.

Sosteric, M. (2013). Sociology 231: The Sociology of Religion. Athabasca University: Athabasca University Course Services.

Weber, M. (1904 (1995)). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Roxbury Press.

Wikipedia. (2015). Divine Right of Kings. Retrieved Feb 28, 2015, from wikipedia.org


[1] Only about 3% of American’s identify themselves as committed atheists, and the numbers aren’t that impressive anywhere else. We have nine percent in Canada, twelve percent in Norway and Germany, and a “staggering” nineteen percent in France (Hunsberger & Altemeyer, 2006).

[2] Of course, institutions don’t always reflect everyone’s needs equally. Critical sociologists will often point out that many institutions are set up primarily to meet the needs of the rich. For example, our modern school system is a class-based school system that socializes and teaches individuals to live and work in a capitalist society. What's more, our education system teaches people differently, depending on what social class they are in (Anyon, 1980). Thus, the rich get one type of education and the poor get another. The children of the rich are socialized to be leaders and managers while the children of the poor are socialized to be workers and peons. But, whether or not an institution reflects the needs of “all people” or just “some people” is beside the point of this introduction. The point is that institutions are set up to meet some sort of need.

[3] For a run down on The Family, see my Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt (Sharp, 2013).

[5] Actually at the time of this writing I think all people overlook the second hierarchy because I could find no indication of it when searching google, and no discussion of it in the academic databases.

[6] You can Google the phrase “’cognitive needs’ Maslow”. When you do you seem little indication that anybody recognizes the existence of a second hierarchy of needs. This is a very curious oversite that is difficult to explain with naïve perspectives on human polity. I think psychology has ignored this second hierarchy because of the difficulty its acceptance would pose for capitalist industry, Hollywood, and even the education system. Maslow was clear that these needs were conative like the other needs (meaning they were instinctual, biologically rooted, and powerful). Just like the other needs, failure to satisfy these needs would thus lead to emotional disturbance and pathology. Thus in all human activities we would have to strive for truth and understanding.

[7] For my critical comments on religion and spirituality, see Sharp (2010, 2011)

[8] For a discussion of the Family”, see my Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt (Sharp, 2013). As I note there, many traditional religions and spirituality provide subtle, and often not so subtle, ideological support for venal economic interests. As I note in that book, despite the fact that there is often spiritual wisdom to be found in ancient religious system, “Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and all of the major world traditions contain elements of ideology that support inequality, privilege, power over others, and accumulation regimes.”

Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)

Just another loud mouth sociology professor, teaching sociology courses at Athabasca University. Check me out here at the Socjourn, over there at The Conversation and at academia.edu.

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