Religion is a set of beliefs, values and practices that constitutes a person’s relationship with the supernatural or superhuman. Religious beliefs and practices include prayer, devotions, chanting, rituals, the use of sacred texts (such as the Bible or Quran), belief in an afterlife, and the performance of miracles. Religious values include compassion, forgiveness, and the importance of giving back to the community. Religion also encompasses a person’s moral code, which is a set of rules and guidelines for everyday life.
There are many different perspectives on religion, each with its own arguments and evidence. Some views of religion are based on the beliefs, values, and practices of specific cultures. Other views of religion are based on philosophical ideas about God or the nature of the universe. A third group of views of religion is based on scientific research into the effects of religion. For example, some studies have shown that people who practice religion are happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Others have found that being religious may contribute to better physical health, such as longer lifespans.
Many scholars have attempted to define what is meant by the term “religion”. Some definitions are substantive, such as that of James G. Frazer, who defined religion as a belief in a power higher than human beings and an attempt to please or propitiate these powers. Other definitions are functional, such as Emile Durkheim’s idea that religion is whatever system of practices unites a number of people into a single moral community. This definition emphasizes the social function of religion, while playing down its cognitive element.
Other definitions of religion seek to combine the functions of a belief in an afterlife with its effects on a person’s daily life, such as those of Paul Tillich, who defines religion as what dominates a person’s life and provides orientation for it. Still others try to avoid using a substantive or functional definition altogether and treat religion as an inevitable feature of human culture, such as Ninian Smart’s model of the true, the beautiful, and the good.
Sociological perspectives on religion focus on the functions of religion and the inequality and other problems it can reinforce and perpetuate. One major perspective is that of Emile Durkheim, who emphasized the social functions of religion and argued that it was a necessary part of every society. Other sociologists have also discussed the important role that religion can play in people’s lives, including helping them to understand their own worldviews and enhancing their psychological well-being. Almost all of these different viewpoints have something to offer to the study of religion. However, there is also much debate over whether or not these various theories of religion can be combined into a single theory that adequately captures all the aspects of religion that are important to humans. This article considers some of these competing theories, focusing on the ways in which they are related to each other.