What Is Religion?


Religion is the belief in a transcendent spiritual reality that embodies the ultimate order of things. It binds groups together, provides moral guidance, and offers strength during life’s transitions and tragedies. It also serves as a source of meaning and purpose, reinforces social cohesion and stability, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.

Sociologists have analyzed religion in terms of its functions and societal impact. Emile Durkheim, the first sociological functionalist, argued that religion binds individuals into a moral community called a “church.” He further believed that religion is about community: It unites people in common values and encourages consistency of behavior, thus promoting social stability.

Psychologists and neuroscientists (those who study the human brain and nervous system) argue that religion addresses emotional and psychological needs. These include a fear of death, a desire to belong, and the need for a meaningful spiritual experience.

Anthropologists, historians who study prehistoric cultures, and paleontologists (those who study fossils) have found evidence of religious beliefs in many ancient societies. For example, archaeologists have uncovered burial rituals and other artifacts that show Neanderthals cared for their dead and believed in an afterlife.

The debate over definitions of religion continues. Scholars have offered both monothetic and polythetic approaches, and some scholars have critiqued each other’s definitions. For example, de Muckadell (2014) argues that stipulative definitions (“ice-skating while singing is a religion”) are problematic because they are not subject to criticism and force scholars to simply accept whatever definition is offered. She suggests that a more helpful approach is to analyze whether a given definition adequately reflects or captures the facets of religion that are of interest.