What Is Religion?

The word religion describes a wide range of beliefs and practices that people in different cultures share. Traditionally, scholars have defined religion as a social genus—that is, a set of beliefs and practices that appear in all cultures. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to pull back the camera and see that the concept of religion is actually a culturally constructed category, not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Sociologists and historians have used different approaches to define religion. Karl Marx, writing in the aftermath of European industrialization, argued that religion is a form of collective denial of the truth of the world and maintains inequality among human beings. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber were both social theorists who studied the effect of religion on society. Their work led them to think that religion is a form of social glue, binding people into communities and providing them with a sense of belonging.

Other researchers, such as psychologists and neuroscientists, have looked at the function of religion in people’s lives. They have found that religious beliefs and rituals often provide meaning and direction in life, give people a sense of belonging to a community, and help them understand the universe and their place in it.

The most common definition of religion today is one offered by Rodney Needham, who wrote an article in the journal Science that defines religion as a system of beliefs, feelings and actions that binds people into like-minded communities and provides them with a code for moral behavior. He also adds that a religion must have a transcendent being—a God, spirit or belief in an afterlife.

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