What Is Religion?

Religion is a phenomena that arises out of people’s need for faith and meaning. It binds people together, promotes behaviour consistency, and offers strength for people during life’s transitions and tragedies. It is a social phenomenon that people are willing to live according to and, at times, die for. It is also a source of moral order. People can have faith in many things, but for most it is their religious beliefs and practices that are important to them.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to analyze religion in terms of its societal impact. He believed that the key features of religion were: it binds people together (social cohesion), it imposes morality on society through its values, and it provides strength for people during life’s transitions, tragedies, and death.

Other sociologists have analyzed religion from different perspectives. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor (1871-1933) argued that narrowing the definition of religion to mean belief in spiritual beings excludes many peoples and misses the point. He thought that a broader view would better reveal the deeper motive which underlies religion.

The functionalism approach to religion tries to define it in terms of its benefits for people and societies. For example, Cooley defined it as “the transcending of human biological nature and the formation of a self–an inevitable occurrence that all societies effect in individuals.” Other authors have used formal definitions that seek to group the elements of religion by their secondary traits and to find patterns that distinguish one from another. These definitions are not intended to be complete, as many other elements may also be included in a given religion.

For example, German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883) studied the social impact of religion. He believed that religion reflected the social stratification of society and that it maintained inequality and perpetuated an unjust status quo. He famously proclaimed that religion was the opium of the people.

Formal definitions are useful because they provide a clear structure for the study of a religion and can help to solve conceptual problems which can arise in more informal definitions. They are, however, prone to criticism from those who believe that they exclude certain aspects of the religion being analyzed.

A more recent approach to the study of religion has been a more philosophical and analytical approach that attempts to define religion in terms of its essential properties. Philosophers such as Frederick Ferre have developed a set of criteria which he believes a religion must satisfy in order to be considered as a religion:

Although these criteria are not foolproof, they do help to guide the study of religion. The basic requirement is that religion must be seen as the most intense and comprehensive method of valuation in humans. This definition of religion allows us to examine the phenomena of religion in a more objective way and to distinguish it from other types of valuing, such as art or science.