What Is Religion?


Religion is a belief in one or more divine beings that are responsible for human life and death. It encompasses an array of practices, rituals, and social-organizational structures that are shared by millions of people around the world. It also teaches values and principles, such as compassion, forgiveness, enlightenment, and service. It also offers comfort and a sense of community to believers.

Sigmund Freud and others have argued that religion is simply pathological, encouraging irrational thoughts and ritualistic behaviors. But psychologists’ doubts have not curbed religion’s powerful hold on humans. In fact, more than 85 percent of the world’s population embraces some form of religious belief.

While there are a variety of definitions of religion, some scholars argue that it is best thought of as a category or taxon of social institutions rather than as a set of beliefs about reality. This functional approach is represented by Emile Durkheim’s 1912 definition: “religion is whatever system of practices unite a group of individuals into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities.”

Other definitions consider the ways that religion affects individual and collective lives. For example, some believe that religion gives meaning and purpose to life, promotes social stability, serves as an agent of control, and provides a source of inspiration for social change. Religions vary considerably in their approaches to such issues as truth, Scripture, behavior, and reason. However, most religions share several features.