What Is Religion?

Religious belief and practice are strongly linked to good physical health: regular religion reduces the risk of dying, improves recovery from illness, and lowers rates of heart disease, stroke, suicide, and other killers. It is also associated with better family relations and social support, and lower rates of divorce, incarceration, crime, drug addiction, and out-of-wedlock births. It also leads to less anxiety and depression, more optimism, and stronger communities.

Most religions, even in their crude forms, seek to help people deal with problems of everyday life and also offer a perspective on death and the future that can be comforting in time of grief or fear. Many religions claim to provide guidance on moral and ethical conduct. They also often claim to have sacred rites or rituals, sacred books, a clergy or priesthood that administers the religion, and places, symbols, and days that are sacred to believers.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, which roughly means “scrupulousness”. This may refer to an attitude of piety or reverence for the gods; or it could mean a strict adherence to the rules and regulations of one’s religion.

Religions have traditionally emphasized the importance of devotional prayer, and in some cases, sacrifice. They also tend to emphasize the value of community and of sharing experiences with other believers. Many religions have specific rites that are meant to bring about certain emotions, such as thanksgiving, joy, forgiveness, and love. They have also emphasized the importance of morality and the value of community service, such as helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick.

Those who practice religion typically believe that they are in friendly communion with the Divine and that they can achieve salvation in this world and the next. In the case of Christianity, this can be a literal salvation in heaven after death or, more symbolically, nirvana (enlightenment) in this life. Religions are also generally characterized by a specific creed or belief system, and they are generally organized into societies with religious organizations.

Various attempts have been made to define religion, including “the recognition by man of his dependence on God for the attainment of his highest happiness” (Hegel), “a feeling of absolute dependence” (Schleiermacher), “the conviction of duty as a divine command” (Kant), and the earnest direction of emotion and desire towards an ideal object viewed as rightly paramount over selfish objects of desire (Mathew Arnold). More recently, scholars like Emile Asad have argued that to describe religion in terms of beliefs or other subjective states is to miss its important and practical effects. They have suggested a fourth C to the standard three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good: community. This is especially important since, as they have shown, the practice of religion has a strong effect on society. This is evidenced by the fact that religions are associated with reduced levels of divorce, crime, delinquency, incarceration, out-of-wedlock births, health problems, and prejudice.