What Is Religion?

Religion is an incredibly diverse group of social practices. Some scholars treat the concept of religion as a complex, and use terms such as “constellation”, “assemblage”, or “network” to describe it. Others, particularly scholars of theology and of the history of ideas, use more traditional terms such as “monotheism”, “dualism”, or “fundamentalism”. These approaches are not only theoretically different, but also often empirically so: Those who practice a religious tradition are typically more active in their communities, more committed to helping others, and more satisfied with their lives than those who do not.

A key function of religion is to provide a way for people to understand their place in the universe, a system of beliefs and values that can help them deal with questions about the meaning of life and what happens after death, and a set of behaviors and practices (called ritual) to guide their day-to-day choices. This can include a focus on family and community, service to others, or the quest for enlightenment or peace.

In addition, a religious tradition may offer guidance about the nature of good and evil, about right and wrong, and about how to achieve personal or societal moral perfection. Most religions also have a focus on the supernatural and spiritual, about forces and powers that are beyond human control or comprehension.

Many religions also have systems of moral codes and practices that are used to regulate and direct behaviour, and to punish or reward people for their actions. In the modern world, most religions have some form of missionary work, seeking to spread their messages or teachings to non-believers, and in some cases trying to convert them to their own faith.

Most religions help to make people’s lives as projects a little easier, by providing them with the means to attain some of their most important goals. Some of these are proximate, such as living a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful life; some are ultimate, in that they have to do with the final condition of this or any other person and even of the cosmos itself.

Religions can be a source of great happiness, but they are also often associated with intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, social oppression, self-opinionated nastiness, and even the destruction of human life. They can be a source of community, but they are also often a source of division, hatred and war.

There is a growing recognition that, as with the concept of culture itself, it is not possible to develop a definition of religion which is uncontroversial and universally valid. Instead, a more productive approach is to look at the functions that religions serve in society and try to assess whether or not they are meeting those needs, rather than to attempt to correct a lexical definition of the word with a “real” one. This approach is called functionalist.