What Is Religion?

Religion is a social category that entails beliefs about supernatural beings and cosmological orders. Historically, the term has also been used to describe a set of social practices that bind people together, promote behaviour consistency, and offer support during life’s tragedies and transitions. Today the term is often used to refer to a broad taxon of activities, such as the so-called world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Some academics take a minimalist view of the concept, rejecting the idea that anything can be called a religion unless it exhibits all of the following characteristics:

Others are more conservative, arguing that the word religion has lost its meaning and should be left to describe social structures or behaviours rather than any inner mental states. They point out that many psychological studies have shown that religion provides benefits to people’s lives: it improves their health, learning, economic well-being, and self-control, and reduces social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, drug and alcohol addiction, and depression.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to analyze the societal impact of religion, concluding that it bolsters social cohesion and morality, and offers strength to people during life’s tragedies and transitions (functionalist theory). More recently, sociologists have analyzed how religion provides a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of challenges such as poverty or death. They are also concerned that religion can be manipulated to maintain patterns of inequality. For example, Marxists argue that the Catholic Church helps perpetuate patterns of wealth for a few and poverty for many.

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