What Is Religion?


Religion is a social phenomenon involving the way people cope with life’s fundamental concerns, often expressed as spirituality or devotion to a higher power. It includes religious beliefs, rituals, texts and social institutions and can be found in every culture on earth. Historically, religion has been defined as a set of beliefs and practices that deal with what people regard as holy, sacred, absolute, or spiritual and worthy of special reverence. This is still one of the most common definitions used by sociologists and others to understand the role religion plays in society.

Some scholars argue that defining religion in terms of beliefs reflects the Protestant bias of the discipline and that the concept obscures the real power of institutions. These scholars seek to shift attention away from hidden mental states and towards the visible institutional structures that produce religious behaviour. This view of religion is sometimes referred to as structuralism.

Other scholars, like the American religious scholar Paul Tillich (1957), adopt a functional approach to religion, viewing it as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values. This definition is similar to that used by the social scientist Emil Durkheim (1815), who identified the religion of a society as the “collective religious feeling” produced by the adherence to a particular set of moral norms and the belief in some ultimate reality.

Today, it is more common to use the term religion to refer to a broad taxonomy of social practices. This definition includes both traditional, organized religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and more recent, or “new,” religions that are not formally recognized but are still subscribed to by a significant number of people. This taxonomy also encompasses religious beliefs that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. It is important to recognize the diversity of religions in order to prevent racial or cultural stereotyping, to promote religious tolerance and to avoid the mistaken belief that all religions are the same.

A key feature of this type of taxonomy is that it can be used to identify patterns within and across the different religions. The goal is to develop explanatory theories based on these patterns and to recognize the importance of the religious dimensions in all cultures. In this context, polythetic approaches to the concept of religion are becoming increasingly popular as they seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has a fixed essence.

Research shows that regular participation in religious and spiritual activities provides a number of benefits to individuals, families and societies. These benefits include a sense of community, decreased domestic violence, crime and substance abuse, increased educational attainment, improved health and longer lifespans. Most religions also encourage a high degree of goodwill toward others, which contributes to better mental and physical wellbeing for the entire human race. In fact, some studies suggest that the practice of religion may even prolong life itself. These conclusions are based on the findings of a number of different scientific disciplines, including psychology and public health.