What Is Religion?

Religion is the worldview, belief system or collection of beliefs, values and practices that people share. It is a central element in the lives of many, and it is a source of guidance, comfort and meaning in their world. Religious faiths are generally organized into communities with their own hierarchy of leaders, scriptures, holy writings, rituals, prayers and traditions. They also have an effect on the culture, morality, behavior, and belief systems of the people who practice them. These impacts range from a simple change in the way a person carries themselves to major cultural and societal changes.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio. Scholars differ on the exact meaning of the word, but most agree that it describes a worldview, an ethos or a system of values and beliefs that binds its adherents to a community. The term is a common one in the academic fields of anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and religion studies. There are also a variety of theories about the origin of religion. Some anthropologists believe that humankind created spirituality in response to either a biological or a cultural need. They suggest that the human brain developed the ability to think about the process of death, and in the face of the inevitable fate of their own existence, humans invented religion as a means to find a reason for being and, possibly, to avoid extinction.

Another theory is that religion arose out of the need to create order in an uncertain and chaotic universe. This view finds its earliest expression in the work of Polybius (c. 125 BCE), who noted that the masses of people were unruly and full of passions and desires, and that to keep them under control, they needed the discipline of religion.

A third view is that religion arises from an individual’s desire to attain the highest possible goals in life. Some of these goals are proximate, such as a better way of living; others are ultimate, involving the end of this life and the eventual return to or creation of a world that is more just or peaceful than our own.

Most scholars agree that the lines between religion and other concepts such as culture, philosophy, tradition, myth, and science are not clearly drawn. In fact, it may be impossible to define religion in a way that is not multifaceted or complex. The most useful approach is probably to treat the concept of religion not as a single thing but as a network of interrelated and mutually supporting aspects of a person’s experience. That approach allows for the inclusion of models that are not traditionally viewed as religions, such as Confucianism. It also allows for the use of functional definitions such as that of Emile Durkheim, which focuses on the social function of religion in creating community. And it leaves the door open to a breathtaking diversity of human experience. That is what makes religion so fascinating.