What Is Religion?

Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that reflects human longings for meaning and connection. It includes belief in a supernatural order, often accompanied by rituals, symbols, and a code of behavior that defines right and wrong. Some form of religion has been practiced by every known culture. Whether or not a person believes in an afterlife, disembodied spirits, or a transcendent god or goddess, the idea of spirituality has been at the heart of religious thinking since prehistoric times.

It is not easy to define religion. Even scholars who work on religion struggle to agree on a single definition. One approach to the question is to define it functionally rather than substantively, and look at its effect on a society. This approach has been advocated by such anthropologists as Clifford Geertz, who defined religion as “a set of tokens” in a culture (Geertz 1984). Another way to think about religion is to consider its role in human development. It has been argued that the origins of religion can be traced to early attempts by humans to control uncontrollable aspects of their environment, such as weather or pregnancy and birth. Prehistoric people tried to manipulate the world around them through magic and supplication, or prayer and sacrifice. Magic involved trying to make things directly subject to human will, and supplication referred to appeals to a higher power for help in controlling the natural environment, such as asking for rain or success hunting.

During the twentieth century, scholars shifted to a more substantive definition of religion, looking at it as the belief in a set of mythological and other narratives about the creation of the world and its enduring structure, and of the worship of certain deities or divine forces. This shift prepared the way for more modern developments, such as a new interest in comparative studies of religions.

Some recent research suggests that religiosity is related to well-being, primarily by providing moral guidance and a sense of community. However, it is not clear whether this association is caused by the actual beliefs and practices of religions or by other factors, such as a link to healthy behaviors or a sense of purpose in life.

In any case, the history of human societies reveals that religion can promote social conflict as well as unity. Individuals and whole communities have been willing to persecute, torture, and kill over religious differences in the past, as they are still doing today. This fact highlights the dangers of relying on religion to solve problems of human violence and conflict.

Comments are closed.