What Is Religion?

Religion is a global phenomenon involving the beliefs and practices of about 6.5 billion people on Earth. Many religions focus on matters of the supernatural or the afterlife but most also provide rules and teachings on how to live on Earth, such as how to treat fellow humans or how to behave in the workplace or when driving a car. Religions have a wide range of beneficial effects, such as providing moral values and social cohesion, as well as alleviating poverty and disease and reducing hostility and violence motivated by religious differences.

Sociologists like Emile Durkheim argued that religion is an inevitable feature of human culture. However, this view ignores the role that social circumstances play in defining what is a religion, including such factors as the relative wealth or poverty of a society, the presence or absence of political and economic equality, and its cultural history and traditions.

Some psychologists and neuroscientists (scientists who study the mind and brain) argue that religion meets psychological needs in humans, such as a fear of death or a desire for meaning in life. Others claim that the concept of religion may have evolved from humankind’s need to control uncontrollable aspects of nature, such as the weather or success in hunting, by attempting to manipulate those parts of the environment through magic and by asking for assistance from divine powers or beings.

Other scholars, such as Clifford Geertz and Marvin Asad, have criticized the tendency to treat the notion of religion as if it is something in itself rather than a concept that names the way some things work within the world. Other scholars, such as Rodney Needham and J. Z. Smith, have embraced the idea of a polythetic approach that defines religion as a class characterized by several characteristics that must be present to some degree.