What Is Religion?


For the vast majority of people in the world, Religion is a central part of their daily lives. In the US, for example, the overwhelming majority of citizens identify themselves as religious. Yet, when many people talk about Religion, they tend to confuse it with culture or philosophy or tradition or myth – concepts that are widely used to sort cultural types and which are also open to broad interpretation. The overlapping semantic range of the concept of Religion makes it challenging to develop clear and useful definitions, particularly when trying to compare and contrast different beliefs or practices that claim to be religious.

In broad terms, Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power or powers (whether that be a God or gods, spirits, or a cosmological order). It also includes devotional and contemplative practices, moral conduct, and participation in rituals and ceremonies.

It is typical for Religions to provide believers with a general picture of the universe and their place in it. This picture may include an explanation of the origin and purpose of the universe, life, and the afterlife. Religions also often promote specific emotional experiences such as dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, conversion, liberation, ecstasy, or inner peace.

Three influential social theorists – Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber – each developed a theory of Religion that emphasized its sociological significance. Their work demonstrates that Religion ideally performs several functions: it gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and encourages people to participate in efforts to achieve societal change.