The Definition of Religion

Religion is a broad term that can encompass an individual’s beliefs and practices about something sacred to believe in, the existence of supernatural forces beyond human control, and a code of conduct or personal morality. People also use the word to refer to a group of practices that are common in their region or culture. The definition of religion is the subject of debate, but many scholars agree that it includes unified systems of thought about how to live in the world and what happens when you die.

Until recently, sociologists and other social scientists have generally classified religions according to who or what they believe in. This functional approach, inspired by Emile Durkheim, emphasizes how a belief system generates solidarity and gives purpose to life. It also functions as a mechanism of social control, encourages ethical behavior, and may motivate people to work for social change.

A second way to classify religions is to sort them according to their beliefs about the universe and its origins. This is called a realist approach. It is based on the premise that a religion must contain certain core elements to qualify as one: it must include a belief in something supernatural, it must involve the practice of rituals, and it must provide a set of rules for conducting a moral life.

Some scholars take a polythetic view of religion, saying that any occurrence of these characteristics is part of the religious experience. Others, like Rodney Needham, argue that religion is a category concept and therefore is not something that can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient properties. They prefer to treat religion as a family resemblance concept rather than a concept that must be sorted into members or nonmembers, as is done with the term “literature” or “democracy.”

Still others take a deconstructionist view of the category of religion. They argue that a classification of religions reveals that the very notion of religion is socially constructed, and the process by which it is constructed has a powerful influence on human actions. They would therefore prefer to use the term “religious experiences” and avoid a strict definition of what constitutes a religion.

Recent scientific research shows that religiosity has several health benefits, including lower rates of depression and anxiety, better mental and physical health, and higher levels of social support. Whether these findings are due to divine intervention or the effects of practicing religious rituals, most scientists would agree that religion can improve our capacity to cope with life’s stresses.

It is important to recognize the good that religious people and organizations do in the world, even if some of their activities appear harmful. For example, the vast majority of medical ministries, food aid programs, and clean water ministries are run by religious individuals and groups. Faith groups also found hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, and much more. This reality undermines those who seek to demonize religion as a force for evil and suggests that the nihilistic or deconstructionist views of religion are not valid.