“Religion” is a concept that Hegel develops throughout his Phenomenology of Spirit. Here I’m going to look at the most abstract concept of religion that Hegel provides, the most minimal notion of what a religion must be in order to be called a “religion.”
The most fundamental thing that any religion must have, for Hegel, is a concern with a “beyond.” Meaning: a concern with what is beyond self-consciousness. In other words, religion is always concerned with something transcendent. This is Hegel’s minimal definition of religion: there’s always more to religion than this, but religious thought is always concerned with what is beyond consciousness of the self.
“Religion,” in this minimal sense, is opposed to “reason,” as Hegel understands it. This is because “reason” denotes a form of self-consciousness that seeks itself in the here and now, while religion must always seek a beyond. As long as the religious mind is looking out beyond itself for something other than itself, it is neglecting the task of reason, the task of seeking itself in the here and now.
What causes a mind to turn to religion? Why should it seek a beyond? Human beings are confronted early on in their lives with something undeniably beyond themselves: the fact of death. Death is “pure negativity” and the absolute opposite of the being of self-consciousness. The human mind is curious to explore this realm of non-being, and so the first stirrings of religion begin early in human history.
The self only exists in the present. Whatever it seeks beyond, it will not find itself there. Religion is, as we’ve seen, the search for something other than the self, and therefore opposed to reason. Ultimately, Hegel will show that religion and reason are compatible, but the abstract concept of religion will have to develop into more concrete forms before such a synthesis becomes possible.
(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)