What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that gives meaning to life and provides moral guidance for human behavior. It also may serve to reinforce social unity and stability, provide a mechanism of social control of behavior, promote physical and psychological well-being, and motivate people to work for positive social change.

Many people in Western societies associate religious belief with a specific religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. However, religious faith can take many forms and be practiced in a wide variety of contexts. Religions can be characterized by their beliefs, their practices, their rituals, and their symbols. Various disciplines have studied religion, including psychology, sociology, history, and anthropology, since the 19th century. Their contributions have helped prepare the way for a more analytical approach to religion and to give rise to modern studies in religious history.

Traditionally, scholars have defined religion in terms of its beliefs and practices and their relationship to a supernatural creator figure. A more current view defines religion as a worldview, or system of values and attitudes that help individuals make sense of the world around them. This definition makes more sense in a complex, globalized world where endless philosophies and ideologies compete for attention and instantaneous communications connect people with different traditions of thought.

Religion has been a subject of study for a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Each discipline has its own approaches to understanding religion, although most of them use a cross-sectional approach, examining the basic patterns and structures of a religious tradition. For example, psychology views the religious experiences and feelings of believers, sociology examines the institutions that make up a religion and their relationship to its beliefs and values, and literary and other studies seek to elucidate the meaning of myths and other symbols.

One of the first attempts to analyze religion was made by Ninian Smart, who used a four-sided model involving the sacred, the mythological, and the sociological dimensions of a religious tradition. A fifth dimension, a materialist one, can be added by recognizing the contribution of a religious group’s body, habits, and physical culture.

The function of religion is to bring people into contact with sacred matters, and to that end it usually promotes a greater psychological and physical well-being for its members. Religion is often a source of comfort in difficult times, and can help a person find meaning in his or her experience by giving it a transcendent perspective.

The functionalist views of religion are based on the assumption that religious groups always have some of these four functions and that, in this way, they are unique. This view can be criticized, however, because it assumes that all religions are identical and therefore is not sensitive to the diversity of the human experience.