What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural institution that involves beliefs and practices with supernatural overtones. It aims to establish moral and ethical guidelines that guide human behavior, aid in social stability and development, promote psychological well-being, provide a purpose for life, and serve as an agent of social change. It is a universal concept that exists in every culture and can be identified by its cultural artifacts and rituals. Religions vary widely in their teachings, practices, and symbols, but they all seek to influence human thought and action.

Scholars have analyzed religion from both functional and substantive perspectives, but a common definition has not been established. Attempts to define religion as an abstract phenomenon have proved difficult. Some scholars, like Karl Marx, have argued that religion is merely a socially constructed set of ideas and values aimed at promoting order, control, and stability in society. Others have viewed religion as a belief in and worship of a transcendent reality, or a way of understanding the universe, while still others see it as a system of rites and rituals that promote moral behavior.

The formal approach focuses on the relationships among religious facts, seeking to classify them according to secondary characteristics. This is sometimes called the “Elementary Forms” or “Durkheimian” approach (Dobbelaere and Lauwers 1973). Durkheim’s early work on religious life, particularly his essay The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), exemplifies this style of study.

A number of functionalists, including Durkheim, have used a phenomenological or ethnographic approach to religion. They have sought to understand religion in its historical context, and emphasized that the concepts of religion and God are culturally specific and contextually relative. They have also rejected the idea that there is one “true” religion, and instead focused on the various ways in which people respond to a divine call and engage in spiritual activities.

Some scholars of religion have criticized the use of the term for scrupulous devotion as reflecting a Protestant bias. They have also criticized the use of structural and agency definitions as a way to obscure the fact that religion is not an abstract phenomena. They have urged that scholars of religion shift attention from hidden mental states to the visible institutions and disciplinary practices that produce them.

Some scholars have suggested that the function of religion is to cement and enforce behavioral norms, such as avoiding procreation until marriage or a fixed age. For example, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that, in modern societies, many religions teach that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, and that most religions have rules that encourage procreation. They assert that these norms may be shaped by international geo-politics. They also suggest that some forms of religion can be harmful to society.