What Is Religion?


Religion is a culturally specific set of beliefs and values. Its essential features usually include: a belief in a supernatural creator; a code of ethics; rituals, ceremonies, and other symbolic actions; an emphasis on moral behavior; a place or spaces for worship; and a hierarchy of leadership with a prophet, priest, or prophetic figure at the top. It is also often characterized by a sacred book or texts, a concept of salvation, and the existence of gods or goddesses.

The term “religion” is sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to any system of beliefs and practices that unite people into a moral community, regardless of whether or not they believe in unusual realities. This type of definition, formulated by Emile Durkheim in 1912, is called a functional definition because it places greater emphasis on the social functions of religion than on its substantive aspects.

Most religions have developed out of a combination of human curiosity about the nature of life and death, and fear of uncontrollable forces. These fears were transformed into hope for immortality or life after death, a promise of salvation from sin and suffering, and a sense that there is meaning in the universe.

There are many theories about the origin of religion, ranging from evolutionary to psychological. Psychologist Jung suggested that it arose out of primitive human emotions and needs for control, security, and identity. Sociologists and anthropologists have noted that religions tend to form around a common core of belief systems, rituals, and symbols, with most believing in the existence of one or more gods. These core beliefs are commonly called the sacred or holy scriptures, and they are frequently interpreted as having ancient or eternal value.

Religious beliefs and rituals are often deeply intense experiences that can involve crying, laughing, yelling, being in a trancelike state, or feelings of oneness with the world or the cosmos. Religious rituals and ceremonies are also often accompanied by music, dance, and art. They may be transformative for some people or, for others, just mildly moving.

Many religious scholars have attempted to analyze religion from an empirical standpoint. However, the most influential work in this area has been the reflexive approach exemplified by Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). This Foucauldian framework asks scholars to examine how assumptions baked into the concept of religion have biased their grasp of actual historical realities.

Academics from a wide range of disciplines study religion, and there are countless ways to learn about this fascinating subject. Many major universities offer introductory courses and online learning opportunities are available as well. Regular practice of religion benefits individuals, families, and communities, fostering health, academic achievement, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. It can also help with stress, addiction, and depression. It can even lead to political activism. However, it is important to remember that choosing a religion is not as simple as following the crowd or putting one’s own beliefs into the box labeled “religion.” It is a complex, serious choice that will shape an individual’s entire future.