What Is Religion?

Religion is an important part of many people’s lives. It gives meaning and purpose, provides a moral code, creates a sense of community and belonging, helps people cope with problems, and may motivate them to work for social change. It also can serve as an outlet for emotions, stress and anxiety. The importance that people attach to their religion varies somewhat by religious tradition, but eight-in-ten or more Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of historically black Protestant churches, Mormons and evangelical Protestants say religion is very important in their lives. These figures have remained about the same over time.

Scholars have argued that defining the concept of religion is difficult and that there are different ways to describe it. One way to define it is to describe it as a set of practices that are characterized by a common set of symbols, rituals and values. Another approach is to see religion as a set of beliefs or attitudes about the world, the universe and humanity. This is sometimes referred to as the phenomenological or naturalistic approach.

A third approach involves examining the functions that religion fulfills in the lives of people. This view has been championed by scholars such as Émile Durkheim, who viewed religion as a collective unconscious that creates solidarity in groups. Others, including Paul Tillich, have favored functional approaches to the definition of religion.

Religions typically deal with one or more of the following:

The idea that there is a god or gods and that their goal is to save human souls. This can be in a literal sense with a life in heaven after death as practiced by Christianity, or in a more symbolic way with an end to suffering such as nirvana, which is practiced in Buddhism.

Religions typically involve organized groups with special rites and ceremonies, sacred books, a clergy or priesthood that administers the religion, places and symbols that are considered holy by the religion, and a system for interpreting and understanding its teachings.

The study of religion often includes the exploration of the origins of religion. For example, anthropologists and archaeologists have uncovered evidence that early civilizations looked to religion for prescriptions of behavior and laws. For example, the ancients regarded Yahveh (the God of the Bible) as giving Moses the Ten Commandments, Thoth as handing down a code to Menes in Egypt and Shamash as guiding Hammurabi in Babylonia.

The study of religion is a rich and varied field. Its impact on society should be a subject of inquiry for policymakers, psychotherapists and educators. It should be recognized by all that religion plays a significant role in the lives of most Americans, and that it is unfair for public policy to exclude religious organizations and individuals. In the context of a free society, legislators should seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore the influence of religion and its contribution to the welfare of the nation.