What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics. It includes a set of sacred traditions, holy texts, symbols, ceremonies and rules for behavior. The practice of religion has benefits for individuals, families and states. It improves health, learning, social and economic well-being, self-control and empathy. It decreases the incidence of criminal behavior, drug and alcohol addiction, anxiety disorders and mental illness. It promotes the formation of groups that can support each other in stressful situations and provide emotional and material assistance.

Religion also provides a sense of purpose and meaning to life. It helps people cope with death, loss, loneliness and stress. It offers a variety of ways to address these difficulties, such as prayer, meditation and specific religious rituals. It also provides a sense of belonging to a community and a sense of moral responsibility.

It is not easy to define religion, partly because it is a category for cultural practices that differ from one another. Its scope has expanded over time from a narrow focus on scrupulous devotion to include a wide range of beliefs and practices, from a cosmic version to polytheism to theism. Functional definitions of religion shift the concept even further, from a set of beliefs to whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values.

The most common way to approach religion is as a taxon, or collection of related practices. Anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, however, emphasize the need to understand religious structures in their social context. Sociologists such as Emile Durkheim take a functional approach, defining religion as the system that organizes the values of a society.

Most cultures develop religions to respond to certain fundamental needs and concerns. The higher religions typically include a recognition of man’s inability to control nature or to utilize the forces of his being for his own purposes, and a belief in the existence of a mysterious deity who does control these natural and human powers and has a right to demand man’s submission and worship.

Almost all religions recognize the importance of doing good things for family, friends and neighbors. They also tend to teach about a special relationship with God that encourages believers and worshippers to love Him. The immensity of the Divine power and wisdom arouse feelings of awe, and the sense of having offended or estranged Him leads to fear and sorrow and a desire for reconciliation.

Some scholars criticize the idea that there is such a thing as religion, and suggest that people should stop treating it as an object to be studied and understood. Others argue that while it is true that human beings have developed religions for many reasons throughout history, these structures are real and need to be addressed by thoughtful anthropology, sociology, psychology and other disciplines. Ultimately, a careful analysis of these religions will help to better understand the world around us. It will also lead to a more respectful treatment of the religions that have formed and continue to shape our lives.