What Is Religion?

What Is Religion?

Religion is a global phenomenon. It seems to be present in most of the world’s cultures, and about 6.5 billion people around the world claim membership in one or more of the world’s twenty major religions. It is difficult to define, but it involves a set of beliefs about the nature of life and the universe, a system of moral values, and an organization for worship. Religions also provide a set of means for attaining important goals, both proximate and ultimate. For example, they can help a person become a better, more productive, charitable, or successful member of human society. Religions can also help a person find meaning in his or her life, and provide hope for the future. They can even help a person bear the pain and suffering of this life and, for some, provide a path to escape it.

Humans are curious about the big questions of life and death, and are often afraid of forces beyond their control. The need to answer these questions and to find value in life has led to the development of many religions. People are willing to live according to, and at times die for, the values of these religions.

Religion provides faith and hope, and can help a person to cope with loss and suffering. In addition, it provides a sense of community and social control. Moreover, religious people are usually more likely to be devoted to their families and communities, and to contribute to charity work.

Scholars have come up with many theories to explain the emergence of religion. For example, psychologists, who study the mind, have argued that religion fulfills some emotional needs of humans, including fear and the need for meaning in life. Neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, have found that certain parts of the brain are activated during religious experiences. And biologists, who study genetics and evolution, have proposed that religious beliefs can be transmitted to the next generation just like a gene for red hair.

In the past, sociologists have defined religion as any grouping of practices that has a strong enough social identity to inspire loyalty and obedience. The resulting taxonomy, or classification, of religions is very broad and diverse. Nevertheless, many scholars have tried to make sense of this variety by treating religion as a “family resemblance concept.” That is, they try to understand the category in terms of its characteristics rather than its contents.

For instance, Durkheim defines religion as a social kind, in which there is a common pattern of beliefs and behaviors. Another approach to the concept of a religion is that it is a system of values that organizes a person’s concerns (whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities). A third approach is Paul Tillich’s functional definition, which stresses the axiological function of providing direction for a person’s life. A fourth dimension, which recognizes the materiality of a religion’s practices and culture, is suggested by Catherine Albanese.