What Is Religion?

Religions are about the human search for meaning and purpose in life. This is true whether one defines the term religious as a belief in supernatural beings or simply as a set of rituals and practices that creates community. Religious beliefs are also about morality and values. Religions provide guidance about what is right and wrong, and many offer a path to a better future.

The earliest religions, those for which we have written records, emerged along the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. They were often polytheistic, recognizing more than one god. These early religions developed elaborate mythologies, rituals, and teachings. Many people today still regard them as religions, and there has been little change in their numbers over the years.

Some scholars have defined religion as a social phenomenon that is present in every culture. Others have adopted a more functional definition, such as Emile Durkheim’s (1912): Religion is whatever system of ideas and practices unites a group of people into a moral community. Both types of definitions have merit, but the latter approach has more philosophical ramifications, as it treats the concept of religion as an abstract class that has no necessary and sufficient properties.

Another way to sort a concept is to look at its family resemblances, and this is the approach taken by scholars such as Robert Alston (1967: 157). This method identifies groups of practices that are similar and provides clues to their origin. It is possible to use the same technique with other concepts such as art, politics or culture itself.

Sociologists are often confused by the variety of practices that can be called religions, and there is a tendency to oversimplify them. In the late twentieth century, some scholars have shifted away from this simplistic approach and have begun to treat religion as a “prototype” concept that has certain defining features that are common to most members of the category.

This approach is a more scientific approach to the concept, because it recognizes that the various religions may differ in their beliefs, rituals, and moral code but they all share certain defining characteristics. It also recognizes that the concept of religion is more than a collection of beliefs, but includes cultural aspects such as physical culture and habits, and social structures.

Religions make life a little easier by providing a means of attaining the most important goals in life, whether they be proximate (a wiser, more productive, more charitable, or successful way of life) or ultimate (a happy or painful existence in rebirth). The societal benefits of religion include economic well-being, self-control, social cohesion, and psychological health. They can also be a source of entertainment in the form of drama, music, and architecture.