How Religion Is Defined

Religion has been a source of comfort and community for many people throughout the centuries, but it can also lead to discrimination, terrorism, war and genocide. It often addresses questions that science cannot answer, such as the meaning of life and what happens after death. While it may not be right for everyone, those who believe in a higher power say religion gives them structure, moral guidance and hope in their lives. Practicing religion is a good way to maintain mental wellness, and can help people cope with difficult situations, such as illness, loss or death.

The definition of religion has shifted and expanded over the years, and now covers an enormous array of practices. These shifts highlight two important issues that scholars face as they try to understand this social taxon:

Traditionally, the concept of religion was defined in terms of beliefs in some sort of unusual reality. This is called a substantive definition. Today, scholars increasingly use a different approach, focusing on the functions a belief system can serve. This is known as a functional definition, and it was pioneered by Emile Durkheim.

In addition to defining what constitutes religion, these theories attempt to explain how and why humans came to organize their beliefs into religions in the first place. They may also explore how and why religions change and die over time.

Although there are many different religions, most share some common features. They typically include a focus on salvation, either in a literal sense (e.g., Heaven or Hell after death) or in a more symbolic sense (e.g., nirvana in Buddhism). They also usually involve worship, sacred rites and rituals, a clergy or priesthood that oversees the faith, holy books, symbols and places that are sacred to believers, and a set of values that guide behavior.

A number of studies have linked religion with a variety of positive outcomes. People who are religious are generally happier, healthier and more satisfied with their lives. They are more likely to have strong family ties and be involved in their communities. They are more likely to donate money and time, and to vote. They are less likely to have out-of-wedlock births, be delinquent or be addicted to drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to have healthy diets, engage in regular exercise and be screened for chronic diseases.

Nevertheless, there is much controversy about the relationship between religion and society. Some people argue that religious beliefs promote prejudice, hatred and violence; others point out that, throughout history, individuals and whole nations have been willing to persecute or kill each other based on differences in religion. Still others note that the presence of religion can create a sense of belonging and social cohesion, and that it has contributed to education, economic well-being, self-control and empathy in families, schools, communities and societies. In the end, however, the decision to practice a religion is a personal one that each person has to make for herself.