What Is Religion?


Religion is a belief system that unites people with similar goals and values. It also provides a framework for moral conduct, a code of ethics that guides the choices of individuals and communities. In addition, many religions deal with what might be called the supernatural or spiritual, about forces and powers that are beyond human control. In this sense, religions are different from philosophies or purely ethical systems.

The question of what exactly religion is has long troubled scholars in the social sciences and humanities. Some, such as the sociologist Emile Durkheim, have defined it in terms of a particular kind of reality; others have taken a more functional view that defines it as whatever sets of practices unite a group into a moral community, whether those practices include beliefs in a distinctive reality or not.

In the past, most attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic,” adhering to a classical view that every instance accurately described by a concept will share some defining property that puts it in that category. Recently, however, some scholars have moved away from that position and toward a more open or polythetic approach. These new definitions take advantage of the fact that it is often hard to tell what makes something a religion in any given culture, and they seek to find properties shared by those instances.

Some studies have shown that there is a link between religious participation and various forms of physical health. For example, those who attend religious services regularly have lower levels of stress and depression than those who do not. They also have a better chance of recovering from illness and lessened incidence of several killer diseases.

It is important to note that such studies have not been conclusive, as the benefits of religion may result from other factors than mere attendance. The study of religion is still in its early stages, and it is important to continue exploring what role it plays in a person’s life.

In a time when the teeming plurality of choices and possibilities can overwhelm individuality, religion can offer a structure for guiding decisions, providing guidance on how to live in harmony with one’s values, and giving an identity that distinguishes people from each other. Especially in a multicultural society, where religions collide and interact, such a sense of stability is valuable for a healthy society. The challenge for the future is to develop a model of religion that takes into account the complexity of our teeming global society and that allows for the possibility of differing definitions of what qualifies as a religion.