What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and values that help individuals understand life’s big questions. These include where we came from, why we’re here, and what our purpose is. Many religions also offer followers structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of belonging. And, perhaps most importantly, they often provide hope of an afterlife, which serves a crucial psychological function.

Until recently, scholars of religion have defined the term in a variety of ways. The most common, which we’ll call “substantive” definitions, determine membership in a religion in terms of the presence of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. However, some have argued that this approach has the flaw that it leaves out the vast majority of societies and cultures.

The more recent, functional definitions of religion put the focus on the way in which a religious concept organizes people into a moral community. This approach is exemplified by Emile Durkheim’s notion of religion as whatever system of social practice unites members of a society into a single moral community, whether or not these practices involve belief in a particular supernatural reality. This new emphasis on the role of religion is a welcome development. It provides a more accurate framework for understanding the influence of religion on our lives than the more subjective or substantive approaches, which tend to leave out two-thirds of the world’s population. It also offers a more helpful starting point for legislators, psychotherapists, and the media.

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