What Is Religion?

Religion is an area of social life with a long history that includes beliefs, ritual practices, and institutions. It influences the worldviews of most people and plays a major role in many of their lives. It has been associated with a variety of psychological benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced empathy, and greater self-control. It is also associated with social cohesion, civic engagement, and morality.

It is a complex system of mythic belief, ritual practice, and institutions that manage those beliefs. It can be understood as the underlying belief in an orderly universe, the existence of one or more supreme beings or powers, and an ethical code that guides human conduct. The concept of Religion varies widely across the globe and among cultures. It affects political systems, family dynamics, and personal life choices.

The scholarly study of Religion involves debate over the meaning and function of religious beliefs, experiences, and institutions. Some sociologists reject a substantive definition that defines religion as whatever people believe about a distinctive kind of reality and focus instead on how those beliefs and experiences influence social behavior. This functional approach is illustrated by Emile Durkheim’s view that Religion functions to unify a community and make it morally meaningful.

A second approach defines Religion more broadly to include all of the social and cultural elements that people use to give meaning to their lives. This is often called a “symbolic interactionist” perspective. This view emphasizes that religious beliefs and rituals are not sacred unless they are regarded as such by the participants. When the participants see these elements as sacred, they can be comforting and provide stability. They can also be terrifying and inspire wars, slavery, and persecution.

Still others define Religion more narrowly to exclude any kind of belief in a supernatural being or power. This is a stipulative definition that limits the scope of the analysis and is likely to confuse the study of Religion. Kwame Anthony Appiah warns that stipulative definitions are problematic because they force scholars to “accept what someone else says is a religion.”

In addition to the functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives, there is the more traditional view that Religion is a collection of mental states that are both private and shared. This view can be traced back to the Protestant bias that defined Religion as a collection of ideas and not as any visible institutions or observable practices.

These different perspectives illustrate the fact that Religion is a complicated and multifaceted phenomenon. In the end, it is probably best to take a broad approach that allows for variation and recognizes that religion can be both good and bad. In the process, it may be possible to identify some general patterns of Religion and learn how these might be beneficial or harmful to humans. Until then, the debate about Religion will continue to grow.