The Concept of Religion


Religion offers moral guidance, community, structure and hope. It provides frameworks for making life meaningful, and it can inspire feelings of love, compassion and goodwill, as well as hate, fear and loathing.

Religion evolves in and across cultures, adapting to the reality of people’s lives and often combining features from many traditions. This means that while some social institutions change radically from one era to the next, religions typically change at a much slower pace and often retain older features as they introduce new ones.

Religious belief and practice have long had an important influence on the world, from the founding of cities to the spread of science. Despite its pervasive power, the concept of religion is also a highly contested one. Some scholars take the approach that the term is meaningless and thus should be avoided, arguing that it names an abstraction without any concrete referents (similar to how we sometimes use the term ‘bacteria’ to mean any one of 1500 different types of microorganisms). Other scholars argue that the concept can usefully be understood as a family-resemblance taxon, in which case there are necessary and sufficient properties that must appear for something to be called a religion.

There is a growing body of research that shows the positive benefits that regular religious participation can bring to individuals, families and societies. It improves health, learning and economic well-being and fosters self-control, self-esteem and empathy. It reduces the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, and drug and alcohol abuse. It also helps to address a number of pressing social problems, such as prejudice and anxiety.