What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, values and practices that binds groups of people together and often gives them common goals and purpose. It has shaped many of the world’s cultures and continues to do so today. It also has important implications for the social problems that occur in society, such as conflict, inequality and poverty. Religion provides an explanation of these problems and, when taken seriously, a means to overcome them.

There are a number of different ways to define religion. For some, it is simply the belief in a supernatural being. Others, including sociologists and anthropologists, see it as more of a cultural framework that shapes a person’s worldview. In this view, there are a number of different beliefs that could qualify as “religion”, from the broadly accepted concepts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism to more obscure ones such as the astrological faiths or the Norse mythology.

Still others, including a number of sociologists and anthropologists, believe that religion is simply a side effect of certain subconscious intuitive mental faculties that normally apply to physics (predicting the arc the ball will take after being released) or social networks (keeping track of your friends’ history and loyalty). When those same faculties are applied to superstitious beliefs, it is religion.

The conflict perspective takes a different approach, arguing that religion is the source of conflict in human societies. It has been the reason that some groups of people have been willing to kill and persecute others for their religious beliefs. It is the reason that a century ago, Protestants were prepared to burn Jews in their churches and why the modern world wars have been fought over religious differences.

One of the most influential approaches has been that of the functionalists, such as Emil Durkheim who defined it as a collective conscience created by a belief in supernatural beings and aimed at creating solidarity. This is the basis of the functionalist definition used by sociologist Paul Tillich who argues that religion is any dominant concern which serves to organize a person’s values, even when it does not involve belief in unusual realities. This approach is the basis for considering Scientology and the Cargo cults as proto-religions despite not having a written transmitted tradition or explicit metaphysics.

Religion is a complex phenomenon that has both positive and negative effects on societies and individuals. It provides meaning and purpose, reinforces social unity and stability, helps control behavior, promotes physical and psychological well-being and may motivate people to work for positive social change. It can also provide a focus for conflict and can cause stress, particularly when it is based on a misunderstanding of its principles and values or when it leads to intolerance of other religions. The goal of sociological approaches to religion is to understand this complexity. This article looks at some of the key issues and debates in this area. It will also explore some of the consequences of religious belief and practice, both good and bad.