What is Religion?

The first topic that you study in the A2 OCR Religious Studies course is the question 'what is religion'?

It helps if you begin by considering what you think religion is.  Is it

  • Something that God creates to help human beings?
  • A human response to divine experiences?
  • A natural phenomena arising out of human need?
  • Something else entirely?

You might want to consider the following questions to help you to come up with a definition.

  • What similarities are there between different religions?
  • What makes an ideology 'religious' as opposed to secular?
  • Does religion have an essence?
  • Do you think that religion is an inevitable part of society?

The OCR specification requires that you study three main approaches to the question 'what is religion?' these are:

Ludwig Feuerbach:

Feuerbach believed that religion was a projection of human needs and desires. His answer to the question 'what is religion?' is that it is a man made construct. It is based on wishful thinking and is ultimately an illusion.  His thought influenced philosophers like Marx.  

Feuerbach study notes

Ninian Smart:

Smart avoids the question of whether or not religion has any truth in it.  He would answer the question 'what is religion?' by saying that it is a phenomena which can be described in terms of the elements that it possesses.  He devised the six (later seven) dimensions of religion as a way of helping the student to categorise the different aspects that make up a religion.  Smart's approach has been influential in changing the way religion is studied in schools and universities.

Smart study notes

Don Cupitt:

Cupitt believes that 'religion' is something that must change and develop as society changes.  His own theology developed considerably over time but his recent position is that religion is the way people find meaning in a transient world.  He rejects the idea of the objective existence of God but still believes that religious 'faith' is helpful to people.  He is associated with the Sea of Faith movement.

In addition to being able to explain and evaluate the key ideas of Feuerbach, Smart and Cupitt you also need to be able to link their ideas to modernity and postmodernity.  Both modernity and postmodernity challenge traditional Christianity and you need to be able to explain how the named theologians and philosophers have used or responded to that challenge.


'Modernity' has a variety of meanings but here it refers to the world view and approach to theological and philosophical ideas with developed out of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.  It marks the final move away from medieval ways of thinking.  Modernity was characterised by

  • Emphasis on reason and a rejection of revelation
  • Confidence in the scientific method
  • Objectivity
  • Autonomy of thought
  • The search for grand theories (metanarratives) that would apply to and explain everything

Modernity study notes


'Postmodernism' is a term used even more broadly than modernity.  As it implies it comes after (post) modernism.  In many respects it is a continuation of the modernist ideas but there are also some important differences.

  • Loss of faith in metanarrative - emphasis on micronarratives
  • Emphasis on subjectivity and plurality
  • Re-evaluation of emotion and creativity alongside reason
  • Variety

A more detailed page on postmodernity will be uploaded soon.

Generally speaking Feuerbach is a modernist in his approach to religion.  He attempts to find a rational, objective, naturalistic account to the question 'what is religion?'.  Cupitt's mature theological position is one of outright postmodernism.  He emphasises the subjectivity and plurality of experience and emphasises the emotional value of religion.  Smart is a little more difficult to categorise.  His methods reflect aspects of the modernist approach but he is postmodern in his unwillingness to engage with the question of truth in religions.

Use the following pages to explore the different areas of the topic. You will find this should give you a good overview of the ideas. Wide-reading would help you to develop your understanding further.

Use the revision section of the site to find some practice questions or go to the OCR website and do questions from past papers.