What Is Religion?

Religion is a hard concept to pin down. It encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices that range from Christianity, with about 2.1 billion followers worldwide, to Scientology and Rastafarianism, both with around 1.5 million adherents each. It seems to address a deep human need, as evidenced by the fact that churchgoing is a predictor of marriage stability and happiness, and is a strong correlate with positive mental health. It also is a major social glue, drawing believers into likeminded communities that can provide support and meaning in their lives.

Sociologists have generally used a functional definition, arguing that religion consists of belief systems that serve a function in people’s lives. Emil Durkheim, for example, argued that religion is a mechanism for creating community solidarity by providing a common ground for shared values and hopes. Another functional approach comes from Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever serves to organize a person’s values and give orientation to life.

This approach has problems, however. For one, it overlooks the underlying material culture that makes up a given group. It also neglects the way that a given culture’s ideas, rituals, and practices contribute to the sense of well-being that a person gets from their culture. This is not to say that these aspects of a culture cannot be religious, but that they should not be taken for granted as being unproblematically religious.

A more sophisticated approach is to examine the ways that religions share certain characteristics. These include tradition and maintenance of the belief system, a focus on ritual, myth, and symbols; a concept of salvation; sacred objects, places, and actions; codes of behavior; a leader or clergy; a sense of the sacred; a belief in gods and/or supernatural powers; and often a belief in an afterlife.

Although there is considerable variation between different religions, the vast majority of them do share some of these basic elements. For instance, all have some sort of structure for worship, a code of conduct, and a central figure – a prophet or guru – to whom the faithful look for guidance.

Despite its many contributions to social life, religion has also been a source of conflict and even hatred. Since ancient times, people have been willing to sacrifice themselves and even kill others over their religious beliefs and adherence to certain traditions.

As a result, it is important that legislators recognize the value of religion and seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore its impact on society. The debate over the role of religion is important not just for the sake of its own integrity but because it can help us understand other forms of life that may seem to be less worthy of our attention or respect. Those other forms of life, including capitalism, are equally as important to our well-being as are the many traditions and beliefs that make up the world’s religions. To understand them fully, we need to be able to speak in the same language and to share a unified vocabulary.