What Is Religion?


Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that focus on worshipping or reverencing a supreme being or gods. It may involve cultural beliefs, worldviews, texts, prophecies, revelations, morals, spiritual guidance, sermons, prayer, rituals, holy places, symbols, trances, and festivals. In the context of human society, religion is a source of comfort and strength in stressful times. It contributes to morality, community, family, economic well-being, self-control and empathy. It also decreases crime, delinquency, illegitimate births and divorce rates, and psychological illnesses, anxieties, depressions and prejudices.

A major problem in defining religion is that there are so many different beliefs and practices worldwide, that almost any substantial definition will include things most people would not regard as religious. A stipulative definition could include beliefs such as fate, magic or UFOs. A functional approach, favored by Emile Durkheim, defines religion as whatever system of practices unite people into a moral community, whether or not those practices include belief in any unusual realities.

However, a functional definition of religion is not satisfactory. Beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders are present in more than one culture and have been around for thousands of years. Furthermore, some scholars suggest that any definition of religion based on mental states or subjective attitudes (such as the belief in an afterlife) resists the idea that the social reality labeled religion can be studied objectively. A stipulative definition, argued by the Verstehen school of social scientists, will only distort rather than report what happens in society.