What Is Religion?


Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that offer people a framework for making sense of their lives, including birth, life, death, and the meaning of events. It can also be a source of comfort and guidance, a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors, and a community of like-minded people who share a common culture. It can even provide health benefits, according to some research.

The five largest religious groups by world population are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (see the chart below). However, there is much variation among those beliefs, as well as a great deal of syncretism and traditional folk religion.

Whether or not religion is true, it has been a powerful force in human history. Religion can be used as an antidote to some of the most pressing social problems facing our nation, such as out-of-wedlock births and domestic violence. It can also serve as an important societal glue, as evidenced by the fact that communities organized around religious values tend to have greater longevity than secular ones.

A central concept of religion is God or a supernatural Being, often viewed as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good Creator who is the sole source of good and all that is beautiful in the universe. It is this belief, along with a deep-felt need for Divine help, that gives rise to many of the basic feelings and behaviours that define religion.

These include awe of God’s power and wisdom, the conviction that humans have offended or estranged God and thus deserve punishment, a sense of sin and guilt, and, finally, love. The obtaining of benefits in response to prayer prompts gratitude and thanksgiving, the awareness that one has offended God leads to fear and sorrow, and the desire for reconciliation prompts love.

In addition, religion provides a moral framework for navigating the ups and downs of daily living, from guiding sexual ethics to providing moral support for those facing tragedy or sickness. It can also offer a sense of hope and purpose, especially for those who are struggling to find their place in the world.

For these reasons, it is important to study and understand religion in its many forms and how it affects us both as individuals and as societies. While most studies of religion have taken a monothetic approach, in which every instance of a given concept will share the same defining properties, more recent work has favored open polythetic approaches. However, the latter may not be appropriate for all contexts, and a monothetic approach is still valuable in some cases. For example, if the goal is to compare the effects of religion on a society, it may be useful to limit the properties that are examined. This allows for more meaningful and relevant comparisons.