Religion is a way of valuing and giving meaning to life. It is a way of understanding and interpreting reality that provides people with a sense of purpose, a moral order, and a belief in a supernatural being. People need something to value, and if they cannot find it in their family or the natural environment, they will often search for what is called “religion” to fill this void. This need is why people are willing to die for their beliefs and values.
What makes a religion different from other ways of valuing is its intensity and comprehensiveness. It is also a belief that there is a certain hierarchy in the universe where some things are more important than others. This belief is the source of much human curiosity and fear, as well as hope – the hope for immortality or life after death, a god who watches over humanity, and the promise of fulfillment.
How the various religions organize themselves, their practices and structures, is another aspect that distinguishes them. For example, many of them develop from a cult to a sect to a denomination and then an ecclesia. They may be primarily internal, or they may be more public and international. They may be hierarchical, or they might be egalitarian in their leadership and authority.
The question of whether religions are beneficial or harmful to society is also one that has generated a wide variety of debates. Some scholars have argued that religions are useful, especially as social support networks, and that their belief in a transcendent being and its attendant ethics can be a positive force in the world. Others, however, have argued that religion is destructive to individuals and societies and should be eliminated or at least severely restricted.
Some have used the concept of religion as a tool for attacking racism and colonialism, with one popular slogan being that there is no such thing as “religion”, only white supremacy. These criticisms, while valid, miss the point that there is indeed such a thing as religion, even if it does not benefit or hurt society in the same way that most believe it should.
A more sophisticated approach to the problem of definitions is based on the Verstehen school of thought (William Horton 1960). This uses ethnographic research to seek understandings of specific cultures and social worlds. It is a method that has been criticized by some, however, because it tends to present a view of religion from the inside out rather than from a more objective perspective. In particular, it can lead to a kind of social constructionism that overlooks the fact that the very act of creating and interpreting a religion instills certain assumptions about its nature. This is because the process of constructing a theory of religion starts with a set of criteria.