What Is Religion?

Religion is all the prevailing beliefs and practices that people make into sacred (that is, of which they take ultimate value) and that they hold as central to their lives. It also includes the corresponding rituals, ceremonies, and other acts that people perform to express and reinforce those beliefs and values.

Emile Durkheim, a major early theorist on religion, defines it as the “collective conscience of a group,” in which there is the sense of an ultimate order or plan for the world. He stresses the social function of this conscience to create a bond of solidarity among individuals in society. Another functional approach is taken by Paul Tillich (1957), who defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not they include belief in unusual realities.

A number of other scholars have argued that, whatever their specific content, all religions are fundamentally protective systems that help people deal with the problems of life as project. They do this by providing maps of time and space, helping them to confront the limitations of human existence—including death, illness, injury, and aging—and, in some cases, even of the cosmos itself.

Research confirms the basic protective functions of religious belief and practice, and it is clear that religions are essential to the well-being of any society. That is why despite the fact that a large percentage of Americans describe themselves as “nones,” legislators should seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore the impact of religious practice and recognize its contribution to American society.