What Is Religion?

Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and actions that gives its followers something sacred to believe in and a set of rules for moral behavior. It deals with the supernatural and the spiritual, about forces and powers that are beyond human control. It also provides a sense of identity and purpose in the face of hardship and death.

People disagree about what it means to be religious and about the meaning of the word itself. Some argue that the concept of religion is an invented category, a social construct that went hand in hand with modern European colonialism. Others argue that the concepts of religion and mythology are a matter of personal experience, and that one’s view of reality is shaped by what they value and how they value it.

Regardless of how it is defined, most people agree that religion helps to create a sense of community and belonging, and it can serve as an inspiration for moral behavior and good works. However, it can also promote inequality and conflict and lead to persecutions, torture, and wanton bloodshed.

Emile Durkheim emphasized the social functions of religion, and many sociologists today study how beliefs and practices function within societies. Most of the work on religion uses a substantive definition, in which a phenomenon is called a “religion” if it involves a belief in a specific kind of object. A few approaches, however, use a functional definition, in which a phenomenon is called religion if it serves a certain kind of role in a culture.