What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex idea, and it takes many forms in human societies. Whether defined substantively or functionally, religion encompasses the beliefs and practices that help people cope with the uncertainties of life. It gives meaning to people’s lives, promotes social stability, engenders morality and ethics, helps control behavior, and serves as a source of psychological and physical well-being. Religion can also be a source of conflict.

It is a belief in an invisible power that guides man’s choices and actions in this worldly life and the next. It answers mankind’s feelings of emptiness and loneliness, provides a sense of security, and helps him to deal with the difficulties in his way of life. Religion is the foundation of morality, which has helped to shape the laws and ethics that are accepted by society. The moral code of a religion inspires good over evil, truth over falsehood and justice over injustice. Religion teaches people to choose right over wrong and to stand up for their convictions even if they are in danger of being punished for them.

According to the sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, religion can be viewed in two ways: either as a taxon that includes a number of cultural formations that have some necessary and sufficient properties or as a family-resemblance concept that does not necessarily possess an essence. The former approach employs a classical theory of concepts that assumes that a given phenomenon, such as a linguistic category or an abstract notion, will have one single defining property, while the latter focuses on a person’s dominant concerns and the ways in which they organize his values.

In the former case, a person can be described as religious when he devotes much of his time and energy to rituals that express his belief in God. He is motivated by a desire to acquire the benefits that he believes will be his as a result of his prayers and to express his gratitude for them. He also feels a sense of awe when he contemplates the immensity and power of God, and he is concerned that he has offended and estranged him, which leads to fear and sorrow and the need to reconcile with Him.

In the latter case, a person can be described as being religious when he is influenced by a specific religion but does not spend much time and energy on its rituals. He may be motivated by a desire to achieve a particular spiritual experience that will bring him closer to God or by a sense of community that it creates. This often involves activities such as praying, giving charitable donations and attending services at a church, mosque, synagogue or sweat lodge. He is also concerned with the broader social welfare and may work for causes such as AIDS awareness, anti-war efforts or environmental conservation.