What Is Religion?

Religion is a unified system of ideas, feelings, and actions that gives its members someone or something sacred to worship and an ethical code by which they might judge their own and others’ behaviors. It also involves a belief in the supernatural, or spiritual, powers, and often includes rituals that help people articulate their hopes and fears and deal with them. It is also a way of describing the world around them, in terms of its history (some religions believe that time is cyclical, while others think it is linear), and of its ultimate meaning (most religions hold that there is an afterlife or some form of justice).

Anthropologists, scientists who study human cultures, and neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, suggest that the need for religion arises from emotional and psychological needs in humans, such as fear of death and the desire to connect with something larger than themselves. Some of the world’s largest religions claim to answer these questions and provide hope.

Sociologists, including Emile Durkheim, have pointed out that religion provides a community with structure and meaning, and can reduce social inequality and promote the acceptance of differences. They also point to the dangers of intolerance, cruelty, and bigotry that stem from religious beliefs.

Despite these risks, most people in the world identify with some form of religion. It is a universal phenomenon and need, which can be seen in the vast diversity of its forms and practices.