Defining Religion

Religion is an aspect of people’s lives that can be hard to define, yet most humans practice it in some way. Almost 6.5 billion people worldwide are involved in one of the world’s twenty-plus major religions, from Christianity and Islam to Rastafarianism and Scientology. Religions have powerful influence on the well-being of people and their societies, but they also cause conflict and division. A growing body of research has linked religious belief and participation with positive social outcomes, such as reduced divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, poverty, drug addiction, violence, and prejudice.

Most religions offer some sort of moral guidance, encouraging believers to treat their neighbors kindly and help those in need. They usually encourage their followers to procreate (within limits), and they often teach the importance of honoring one’s parents, spouses, and other family members. Religions also address questions that science cannot answer, such as what happens after death and how to best live one’s life.

In addition, most religions provide a sense of community and meaning in people’s lives. They typically have a set of beliefs, worship practices, and holy days that are sacred to their adherents. They may also have a leadership structure, including clergy and other leaders who serve their communities. They might also have sacred texts, a belief in the afterlife, and a system for making decisions.

Many academics argue that religion is a “system of valuing,” in which believers are willing to live and die for what they value most, such as love, family, and community. They are able to find hope and comfort in the religions they follow, even in the face of tragedy or suffering. They are able to make sense of their own lives and the larger world around them through these values, and they want to share their values with others.

Defining religion is complicated, and scholars have debated how to approach it. Some believe that a formal definition is necessary, while others feel that it distorts the study of religion. A formal definition would require a distinction between what is and what is not religion, which could be difficult to accomplish given how intertwined spirituality and identity are with culture.

Other academics prefer a more functional approach, which is to search for what makes something religious in the context of specific social worlds. This is the approach that is implicit in ethnographic and participant observation methods. It has a more nuanced and empathetic view of the study of religion than does a substantive or empirical approach, as it recognizes that religious phenomena can be understood through the lenses of both science and nonscience. The distinction between science and nonscience is not as clear as it might appear on paper, and any definition of religion must take this into account.