What Is Religion?


Religion is a broad category of human beliefs and practices. It includes belief in a god or gods, the supernatural, and the spiritual, as well as codes of behavior and moral values. It also includes the rituals and ceremonies that surround these beliefs, such as prayer and worship. Almost half of the world’s people identify with one of the five major religions. The other half follow smaller religions ranging from Rastafarianism and Scientology to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Many scholars have studied religion in various disciplines. For example, psychologists have interpreted religion in terms of its effects on the emotions and life of believers; sociologists and social anthropologists study religious institutions; and historians look at religious history.

It is common to work with open polythetic models when studying any concept, but it is also possible to take a closed or monothetic approach for the sake of clarity and focus. For example, some scholars use Durkheim’s definition of religion, which turns on its function of creating solidarity; others, such as Paul Tillich, define it based on its axiological functions, such as providing orientation in life.

Early religion developed as a way for humans to try to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as the weather and fertility. Anthropologists believe that early religion tried to accomplish this through magic, which attempted to manipulate the environment directly, or supplication by appealing to supernatural powers, such as gods. In later times, special deities were attributed to natural forces and to ancestors or totem animals, objects, or buildings that unified clans.