What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that help people understand the world and their place in it. It can provide moral guidance, a basis for ethical behavior, a sense of community and connection to tradition, and even an outlet for emotions and coping skills. Research has linked religious belief and practice to positive outcomes such as healthy, stable family lives, effective parenting, reduced out-of-wedlock births, less drug or alcohol abuse, improved health and longevity, and more educational attainment.

Several different approaches have been taken to define what counts as a religion, and what is considered a religion varies widely across time and space. In the early twentieth century, a new kind of definition appeared. It dropped the idea that a religion must include a belief in a distinctive kind of reality, and instead defined it as whatever practices unite a group of people into a moral community (even though those practices may not involve belief in unusual realities). This approach is sometimes called a functional definition.

This change in the definition of religion is important, because it recognizes that people have a need for meaning and value that cannot be satisfied by any other source. People need a faith in something that is bigger than themselves, and they are willing to live according to and at times die for what they value most. In the United States, this valuation is often represented by the belief in a higher power or God.