What Is Religion?

Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, or divine and worthy of especial reverence. It is also a way that people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their place in the world and afterlife. This relation and these concerns are expressed in many different ways, ranging from beliefs in supernatural beings to more naturalistic or humanistic beliefs about the broader human community or the natural world.

Some scholars have tried to define religion by its characteristics. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor defined it as “the belief in a supreme being or in the existence of a future judgment.” But limiting the definition to those who believe in such beings excludes a large number of cultures from the category of religion. Moreover, it is not the most useful way to think about religion. A better approach would be to view it as a function of the human mind.

Emile Durkheim, for example, stressed the functions that religion serves. He saw that people’s religious beliefs and practices help them to organize their societies. They also provide moral criteria and a basis for sound moral judgment. They encourage such beneficial behaviors as regular church attendance, family and marital stability, and resistance to alcoholism and drug abuse. They also help to counteract a variety of social problems such as crime, unemployment, and out-of-wedlock births.

Advances in anthropology, history, and other social sciences have provided an increasing knowledge of the religions of other cultures. This has made it possible to analyze religion from a functional or a structural perspective.