What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs, values and practices that bring people together and give them meaning in their lives. The word “religion” comes from Latin religio, which means “scrupulousness.” A common definition of religion describes it as a group’s belief in a supernatural power or god, along with a code of moral behavior and rituals. Other definitions are more practical, describing what religion does for its members. For example, some religions encourage members to help others, promote peace and provide a source of hope. Religion also may inspire people to work for social change. Religion, for instance, was a major factor in the civil rights movement a few decades ago.

Religious beliefs and practices vary greatly among different religions, but most believe that there is a spiritual realm. Some religions teach that human beings are made of a mix of body and soul, while others teach that spirits inhabit the bodies of humans or other animals. All religions include some form of worship, which often involves prayer, meditation and specific rituals. Some religions also have a centralized place where believers meet to worship.

The nature of the spiritual realm and the role that religion plays in people’s lives has been debated for thousands of years. While some people have doubted religion, it remains a powerful force in the world, with more than 85 percent of the world’s population embracing at least some religious beliefs. Many people believe that their faith helps them to find meaning in life, cope with difficult circumstances and feel a sense of belonging to a larger community. In addition, some people say that their religion provides a source of comfort and support during times of tragedy or loss.

In the past, some anthropologists believed that religion developed in part out of early human beings’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting. They saw two different ways that human beings tried to do this: manipulation, through magic, and supplication, through religion. Magic tried to manipulate the environment directly, while religion supplication sought assistance from higher powers or gods.

Many scholars have attempted to define religion, and the term has acquired several meanings. Some scholars have used the concept of social kinds to develop a definition, while others have offered substantive or functional definitions. A social kind is a set of characteristics that a type shares with other types. The concept of social kinds is useful because it allows us to recognize that some phenomena appear in many cultures without having to define what those phenomena are.

Substantive definitions of religion include James G. Frazer’s statement that religion is the belief in a power or powers greater than human beings and the attempt to propitiate or please those powers, and Emile Durkheim’s assertion that religion is whatever system of beliefs and practices unite a group into a moral community, whether it includes beliefs in unusual realities or not.