What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices, and symbols that (a) promotes closeness to the transcendent, usually through some form of organized worship or other ritual; (b) facilitates understanding and dealing with life’s major events, both good and bad; and (c) provides orientation for a person’s values. It also involves (a) the belief that one or more gods exist; and (b) a belief in salvation, either in a literal sense of going to heaven after death as practiced in Christianity, or in a symbolic sense of attaining nirvana as practiced by Buddhism. It may also involve a cult or other group, sacred books, a clergy or other leader, and holy days and places, as well as various rituals, symbols, and ceremonies that are held to be of special importance.

Various theories are advanced as to the origin of religion. Anthropologists and sociologists who take a functional approach suggest that it evolved as a response to both a biological and a social need. They point to early human curiosity about the big questions of life and death, as well as fear of forces beyond one’s control that may lead to chaos and destruction. These needs were eventually transformed by religion into hope – the hope for immortality, for an afterlife of some kind, and for a creator who would watch over humanity.

Psychologists, scientists who study the mind and brain, offer a different explanation for the need for religion. They believe that religion is a result of a natural human response to a fear of death and a need for meaning in life. Some neuroscientists, scientists who study the nervous system and brain, argue that there is a physical basis for religion. They have discovered that certain areas of the brain can be stimulated to produce an intense religious experience.

Sociologists have argued that religion serves several functions in society, including providing meaning and purpose, strengthening social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, and promoting psychological and physical health. They also point to evidence that religion has a positive effect on family and community life, as well as on education, economic health, and self-control. However, they also point to instances of discrimination and violence motivated by religious differences.

Many religious believers consider their religion to be the true, best religion. Some Christians, Muslims, and Jews, for example, believe that their faith is the only true one. Others, such as the Baha’is, take a different approach to this question. They see the unique central principle in the teachings of the Baha’i Faith as the common factor that unites all major world religions.