What Is Religion?

Among scholars, the term religion has been used to describe a broad range of human cultural practices. Some scholars have defined it functionally, identifying the beliefs and practices that create solidarity or provide orientation in life (as well as those that involve belief in supernatural realities). This type of definition evokes the sense that religion is pan-human and inevitable. Others have tried to define it more narrowly. Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, limited religion to the belief in spiritual beings. This definition is more accurate but it also leaves out many practices, such as the use of medicine or the performance of rituals.

Sociologists of religion have tried to understand these various definitions and approaches. A few, such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, studied the social impact of religion. They found that it helps to organize social solidarity and that it can be an important motivating force. But they have also observed that it can become a source of tension and even division, especially in the case of religious minorities.

Historically, a major aim of religion has been to protect people from dangers, from the self and from others. This explains why religions have been so successful as protective systems, and why they are still so important to human society today. In addition to their protective functions, however, many religions have evolved into more than protective systems: they have become systems for monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmitting information that is judged to be of great value.