The Nature of Religion

A social phenomenon with many definitions, Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that bind people together as a moral community. It can involve a belief in supernatural spirits and other unseen realities, or it may be as simple as a group’s rituals and prayers. A religious group is often a source of social stability and strength, as well as a source of tension and conflict. Many governments have policies that protect the freedom of religion, and laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.

Scholars have debated the nature of Religion for over a century. Some have emphasized the idea that religion is a “social genus,” a grouping of people who share certain features such as taboos, promises and curses. This approach is based on the work of Emile Durkheim and other sociologists. Other scholars, particularly anthropologists, have shifted the emphasis to a functional definition of religion. These scholarly works, influenced by the work of anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-87), have identified systems of beliefs and practices that unite a people as a moral community, without necessarily believing in an unusual kind of reality.

A third way to understand Religion is to study it as a complex of memes, or inherited cultural traits. These scientists argue that a social kind like Religion can exist even before language develops to describe it. Another scholarly approach, known as phenomenology, attempts to study Religion by looking at its effects on individuals and communities. This approach takes the view that a religious experience does not depend on a person’s internal state or external influences, and therefore should be studied as it is experienced by the individual.