What Is Religion?


Religion is a diverse group of beliefs and practices that can range from mystical and spiritual to moral and ethical. While many people disagree on what a religion is, there are a number of common characteristics that most religions share, including a belief in something sacred, a code of conduct, ritualized behavior, and a system of moral values. Religions also typically have a leader or founder who is given godlike status and that most people see as the source of their religious beliefs.

The most well-known definition of religion comes from American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined religion as “a complex system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Geertz’s definition is one of the most influential in anthropology. More recently, however, a number of scholars have moved away from monothetic definitions of religion and toward polythetic ones, in which different properties can appear together to qualify as a religion. These scholars have argued that to insist that a religion must have just one property or that there is some single prototypical religion is to miss important elements of the concept.

A second line of argument about religion has been to focus on its functions for society. Emile Durkheim, for example, emphasized the social functions that religion can serve, such as giving meaning and purpose to life and affirming social cohesion and stability. Others have pointed to the ways that religion can reinforce and promote inequality and other problems in society, as well as contribute to conflict and violence.

Some scientists have approached religion from a more biological perspective. For instance, neuroscientists who study the brain and nervous system have found evidence that humans possess a neural circuitry that can create religious experiences. In addition, evolutionary biologists have argued that cultural memes can be passed on to future generations in the same way as genetic material.

Psychologists, sociologists, and sociologists have each also studied the role of religion in human life. They have generally agreed that religion fulfills a variety of needs in people, such as a need for hope and meaning in life or a need to deal with fear of death or a sense of being overwhelmed by forces that are beyond control. Psychologists and sociologists have also examined how religiosity can improve a person’s ability to cope with stress.

The health benefits of religiosity are the subject of some controversy. Some studies have found that religious people tend to be healthier, but other research has failed to find an association between religion and good health. In addition, some of the health benefits that have been associated with religiosity may actually be due to other behaviors such as a healthy diet and exercise or to other factors such as the social connections that can result from participation in a religious community.