What is Religion?

Religion is a belief in something bigger than yourself and a system of beliefs about how you should behave. It is also a system of values, morals and rituals that help you lead a good life and provide a source of comfort when you are troubled. In addition, it appears that joining a church, synagogue or temple increases your chances of living longer and improves your chances of recovering from illness.

Sigmund Freud suggested that people use religion to cope with fear, uncertainty and stress. He argued that if you believed in God, you would have more psychological security and could deal with the universal privations of mortality. More recently Nigel Barber has argued that religion is a way to make sense of dangerous or unpredictable situations.

Many attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic” – that is, they assume that every instance of a religion will share some defining property that identifies it as a religion. But over the past forty years scholars have become more reflexive and begun to examine the ways in which definitions of religion are constructed. These have been described as “polythetic” approaches.

Sociological perspectives on religion focus on understanding the functions that it serves, how it can reinforce and perpetuate inequalities and other social problems, and the ways in which it can motivate people to work for positive change. Psychologist David DeSteno describes how religious rituals and ceremonies can be intense emotional experiences that may involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike states or a sense of oneness with those around you.