What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad and varied concept, used to describe a wide range of beliefs and practices. It is sometimes defined as a taxon of social forms; others use it to refer to a particular belief system or specific religious organization. Regardless of how it is defined, the term religion refers to the ways that people try to make sense of their world and to give it meaning. Some form of religion is found in every culture that has been studied, although many societies do not have beliefs in supernatural beings or explicitly metaphysical ideas.

Some anthropologists have used the term to refer to a set of practices that are shared by a group or community. Others have focused on the social functions of religion, such as its function as a source of social stability and cohesiveness. The social psychologist Émile Durkheim (1805-1892) argued that religion functions to stabilize society by providing a sense of belonging for all members. In addition, he noted that the rituals of most religions serve as a channel for powerful emotions, such as awe and fear. These feelings keep the religion vital and help to prevent it from fading away or turning anti-social.

Others have argued that religion is an attempt to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment by appealing to a higher power, god or goddess. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1900-38) described religion as an expression of the desire to reach a state of perfect happiness, and the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) defined it as a means of projection of human aspirations.