What Is Religion?

Religion is an organized system of beliefs, values and practices that provides a sense of unity to its members. Often it involves a code of behavior that encourages such positive human traits as love, kindness, humanity, and purity. It also involves a belief in the supernatural or spiritual – about forces and powers that are beyond the scope of humans’ understanding or control.

Early anthropologists believe that religion may have developed out of people’s attempts to control uncontrollable parts of the environment – weather, pregnancy and birth, success in hunting. They recognized two different ways that they might try to do this: manipulation, through magic; and supplication, through religion. Magic attempts to directly manipulate the environment, while religion tries to control it by appealing to an outside source of power: gods and spirits.

Today, scholars have a wide range of definitions for what religion is. Some are “monothetic,” meaning that they define religion in terms of a specific type of belief. Others are “polythetic.” Polythetic approaches drop the requirement that a religion have a certain type of belief and instead define it in terms of the functions it serves.

Research has linked religious beliefs and practice to reductions in the occurrence of a number of social problems, such as divorce, drug addiction, crime and delinquency, health issues and family dissolution. Many religions stress doing good for fellow humans, and so their members are more likely to participate in things like charity organizations.