What Is Religion?

Religion is one of the most common things that people believe in. It is also the source of hope, a sense of security and purpose in life and death, and a set of values that guide human behavior. However, there is a lot of disagreement about what religion actually is. The most common view is that religion has to do with belief in a god or gods, supernatural beings, and/or a spiritual dimension or greater reality. There are many religions that have those elements but there are also religions without them.

The debate over what is religion has been a prominent feature of sociological research in the past century. In particular, scholars have argued that the concept of religion is a modern invention and that it is not useful for understanding the ancient world or prehistoric societies. Some argue that it is too limiting to only use the term to refer to practices that include worship of God and participation in religious ceremonies.

Other scholars take a more functional approach to religion, such as Emile Durkheim’s notion that it provides a glue to hold society together. This function is most evident in the longevity of religious communes compared to those motivated by secular ideologies. For example, religious communites outlasted those based on socialist and communist ideas in 19th-century America (Atran and Henrich 2010).

There are even scientific approaches to religion. Psychologists, scientists who study the mind, suggest that religion is a way to meet emotional and psychological needs. For example, it can give meaning and purpose to life, alleviate fears about death or other adversity, provide social support in the form of a community, and inspire action to promote physical and mental well-being. In fact, neuroscientists have found that there is circuitry in the brain that triggers religious experiences.

Sociological perspectives on religion seek to understand the functions that it serves, how it can be used to reinforce and perpetuate social problems, such as inequality, and how it may motivate people to work for positive social change. These perspectives draw on theories about how human society develops and the ways that human beings relate to each other.

For instance, some scholars argue that religion developed out of human curiosity about the big questions in life and a fear of uncontrollable forces. Others contend that it is a response to the needs of humans for hope, meaning and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Still others point to the benefits of being religious, such as the ability to build strong coping skills and the potential for a healthy lifestyle.