What Is Religion?

Religion is an aspect of life in which people have a variety of feelings, beliefs and behaviors. It is a source of comfort, guidance, moral beliefs and behaviors, and can be a source of community and connection to tradition. It is also believed to influence health and has even been characterized as a force that can promote or discourage certain behaviors. Many scholars have attempted to analyze and define religion, and some have used different approaches in doing so. Most of these attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic,” operating under the classical view that any instance accurately described by a concept will share a single property that makes it an example of that concept. This approach has been challenged in recent decades by “polythetic” approaches that use a prototype structure for classifying concepts.

Some researchers have defined religion functionally as a set of social relations, beliefs and behaviors that create solidarity within a group or provide orientation in life. Others have used a definition that includes the notion of God, while still others have taken a more broad perspective and simply considered all religious beliefs to be a component of human culture.

Regardless of the definition used, there are some fundamental properties shared by all religions: a belief in a deity or deities; a desire to communicate with these spirits; the practice of rituals; and a system of values that serves as a framework for judging right and wrong and making decisions. Some researchers have suggested that the earliest form of religion developed in prehistoric societies as a way to control the forces of nature or to propitiate ancestors. The first special deities to develop were thought to be the guardians of the natural world and the benevolent protectors of humankind. These were then followed by deities of a personal nature, such as the soul or spirit of an individual; and finally by the worship of totems or objects that served as spiritual symbols for clans or tribes.

Some religious beliefs and practices may be beneficial, but there are many other forms of religion that can be harmful to individuals or society as a whole. Often, the harm is caused by religion that has been exploited for self-interest or other ends such as social conformity, political power, economic security or a sense of belonging. Some research suggests that the best form of religion is one that is intrinsic, rooted in faith in something that transcends the individual. Other research indicates that any kind of religiosity can be beneficial as long as it is not directed toward the pursuit of material or status advantages.