What Is Religion?

A religion is a set of beliefs and practices that bring people together to share in rituals, a common code of moral conduct, and a sense of a higher order. Most of the world’s population identifies with one of more than 20 major religions ranging from Christianity and Islam to Rastafarianism and Scientology. These religious systems are usually characterized by a belief in a god or gods, a set of sacred texts, and a belief that there is a higher purpose to life than mere earthly existence.

Some theories of religion’s origins suggest that it grew out of human curiosity about the big questions in life such as death and the meaning of life. Others see religion as a response to the fear of being overwhelmed by uncontrollable forces such as natural disasters and diseases. Still others suggest that religion developed out of the desire to have some sort of hope in the face of these uncertainties, including the hope that there is a life after death or that humankind will be rewarded for its efforts on this planet.

In the nineteenth century, social scientists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber began to study the role of religion in society. They generally agreed that religion served several purposes in society, such as providing a sense of purpose and stability, giving a group identity, and serving as an agent of social control. It also promoted psychological and physical well being and may motivate people to work for social change.

These scholars often took a functional approach to defining religion, determining its membership by whether or not it was a system that brought people together into a common moral community, regardless of the existence or nonexistence of beliefs in unusual realities. In this way they were able to identify the similarities that ran through religions that were previously seen as separate and distinct from each other.

It has become common today for some to declare that there is no such thing as religion at all. These critics of the concept argue that, because the definition of religion has shifted over time and that the semantic range of the term is arbitrary, it is unfair to judge the worth of different religions normatively.

However, this rejection of “thing-hood” for the concept of religion does not mean that there are no religions or that their differences should not be studied. Indeed, it is important that the study of religion continue to be carried out in a context that recognizes that the concept of religion has been an invented category and that its modern semantic expansion went hand-in-hand with European colonialism. The study of religion should therefore be treated with the same caution and respect as the study of other abstract concepts that have been used to sort cultural types such as literature, democracy, and culture itself. The same sorts of philosophical issues are likely to arise for these concepts as they have for religion.