What Is Religion?

Religion is a broad term and, even within a particular culture, definitions can vary widely. Ordinary language definitions often fail to adequately sort out the complexities of religion and tend to be nebulous, subjective, and often based on assumptions and prejudices rather than on actual facts. For example, many people think of religion as “getting dragged out of bed early on Sunday mornings to sit in church listening to preachers talk about Jesus and god.”

Despite its wide range of definitions, the word “religion” is a concept that is fundamental to the human experience and has been a central force in all cultures throughout history. Religious beliefs and practices have been a source of inspiration, creativity, and power and a cause of both conflict and cohesion in societies.

One major function of religion is to provide meaning and a sense of purpose in life. Religious traditions help individuals and groups to establish social ties, to support members in times of crisis, to create a common identity, and to promote moral values. Religious teachings are also a source of hope, and the awareness of personal divine help engenders optimism.

Emile Durkheim was a key proponent of the functionalist view of religion, arguing that a belief in a divinity helps to unite a society and reduces the frequency of social pathologies such as crime, poverty, war, health problems, and anxiety. A more contemporary version of this perspective was developed by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever concerns a person most and serves to organize their values, whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities.