What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex social-cultural system. It is comprised of designated behaviors, practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies and ethics or organizations that generally promote and maintain a shared conception of the good life in a way that serves to establish and manage a social order.

Almost every society in the world has a variety of religions. They vary in their scope and extent and are sometimes characterized by differences in the types of rituals performed, the number of gods worshiped, and even the beliefs about how the universe came into being.

One of the most common definitions of religion is as a belief in a supernatural being. This is commonly believed to be the core of all religions, but there are many people in the world who do not believe in a supernatural being and therefore are not religious.

Another important question for defining religion is to what extent the term can be used to describe different kinds of social practices and institutions. This is a difficult task, but it can be done by recognizing that religions can be both functionally distinct and also structurally similar to other forms of life.

For instance, Abraham Lincoln defines religion as a “social genus” that includes at least four features: designated behaviors and practices; morals; beliefs; and worldviews or ways of viewing the world. At the minimum, however, a religion must include beliefs in some transcendent being, an organized group of members, and the use of rituals and institutions to maintain social control.

These are all valid features of religion, and it is not uncommon for the terms “faith” and “belief” to be used interchangeably in social science literature on religion (e.g., Davidson and Southwold 1973: 375; Johnson and McKinnon 1978: 367).

A second feature of religion is that it can be beneficial to the individual, the family, and society. It can improve health, learning, economic well-being, and the ability to cope with crises. It can also help people develop self-control, social and emotional empathy, and a sense of community.

It can reduce crime and addiction, help mitigate depression in the elderly, and encourage the formation of families and durable marriages. It can even reduce prejudice and discrimination in a variety of ways, such as by promoting tolerance or reducing anti-Semitism.

Lastly, religion can serve as an effective form of charity and social service. When people are religious, they are more likely to donate their time and money to help other people.

The most important function of religion is that it can explain the meaning of life. This can help individuals, families, and societies deal with problems that have no clear answer, such as suffering, death, or questions about the meaning of life.