What Is Religion?

Religion is a social phenomenon that includes a variety of beliefs and behaviors. It focuses on a supreme being, but it can also include multiple gods or no god at all. It can also include a range of supernatural components, such as angels and demons, reincarnation, heavenly rewards and punishments, or the afterlife. It can also involve a range of practices, including ritual, prayer, meditation, and sacraments. It can be a source of morality and of art, architecture, and literature. It can even serve as a guide to scientific exploration of the cosmos.

There are several different theories about the origin of religion. Some experts believe that it evolved as a response to a biological or a cultural need. Others believe that humankind created religion to address the fact that they would eventually die and to give them a way to go on to a better place.

Regardless of the cause, it is widely accepted that religion has influenced most cultures worldwide. The vast majority of people on Earth belong to one of the world’s twenty or so major religions. It is also widely believed that religion has a universal appeal and that it meets a universal need.

Scholars approach religion from many disciplinary perspectives. Psychology looks at the ways that religion affects a person’s emotions and thoughts; sociology and social anthropology look at how a religion functions in a culture; and philosophy, history, and literary studies analyze a religion’s texts and their meanings.

It is also possible to view religion functionally, as the beliefs and practices that generate a sense of belonging and provide a framework for life’s directions. This approach can lead to a definition that is not identical across cultures. However, this type of definition can be critiqued for being too narrow or for excluding important aspects of a religion.

A third way to think about religion is to treat it as a product of culture. This approach can be criticized for treating religion as something that appears in all cultures without really addressing its essence.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim (1864-1920) and German philosopher Friedrich Engels (1818-1883) studied the role of religion in societies and wrote about it extensively. Engels argued that religion was a manifestation of working-class economic suffering and that it served as “the opium of the masses.” Durkheim thought that religion acted as an opiate for the poor, but he emphasized that religion had its positive sides. He argued that a religion could be the source of creativity and self-esteem. He also argued that the existence of religion was inevitable and that it was part of the human condition. This view of religion was echoed by a number of later thinkers, most notably Karl Marx.