What Is Religion?
The vast majority of the world’s people affiliate with a religion and many practice their beliefs fervently. Religions are an essential part of human culture and history, though their effects on society are complex and sometimes controversial.
The study of religion was established as a formal discipline in the 19th century, and scholars have employed the methods and approaches of a variety of academic disciplines—history, philology, literature criticism, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, to name a few—in their attempts to define what religion is. However, no consensus has developed regarding the best way to understand the subject.
In the most general sense, religion is a set of beliefs and practices that humans associate with the sacred or divine. These beliefs and practices are typically expressed in terms of a relationship with one or more gods, the sacred or spiritual nature of the universe, or, in more humanistic and naturalistic forms of religion, an emphasis on the sanctity of the human community and the natural world.
Depending on the tradition, religions also usually have specific cultural characteristics, such as their symbols and iconography, holy books, ceremonial objects, and rituals. Religions may also have specific social functions, such as providing moral guidance, sustaining a belief in afterlife, or generating a sense of mystical union with the universe.
Religions have always been a source of division and stress, but they also bring people together in ways that are not necessarily based on a shared set of beliefs. It is important for everyone to be aware of the power that religions can have on societies, both good and bad, and to make an effort to respect the religious beliefs of others.
One of the most interesting things about religion is that it can exist in so many different forms and yet still be considered a religion. This makes it difficult to understand, let alone criticize, religion. It is also important to remember that even religions that are often used as punchlines in the West – like Rastafarianism – have a serious basis.
If one wants to know more about a particular religion, the first thing to do is read its holy book. Then, if possible, try to visit the religion’s house of worship and meet its leaders and followers. Finally, if you have friends or family members who practice another faith, take the time to learn more about their beliefs and values.
In defining religion, scholars have debated whether the concept should be seen as a taxon—one that sort of categorizes social formations—or as a family-resemblance concept, which is more flexible. Those who argue for the former point to a number of properties that are said to be distinctive of religions—such as the numinous experience or the contrast between the sacred and the profane—but these arguments have been met with a great deal of skepticism.