What Is Religion?

Religion is a collection of beliefs, practices and behaviors that humans use to make sense of the world around them. It offers followers structure, a code of ethics and a purpose in life, as well as the promise of an afterlife. Many scientists believe that religion evolved as a way to deal with uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and hunting success. It may also help to explain the origins of life and the universe, and answers questions that science cannot fully answer.

The word religion comes from the Latin religio, meaning “scrupulous devotion”. Historically, it has been used as a term for both individual and social adherence to certain beliefs or practices, but it is now mostly associated with belief in God.

In its earliest forms, it appears that human beings developed religion as a way to address uncontrollable parts of the environment and a need for order. Anthropologists recognize two different ways that early humans tried to control the environment: manipulation, through magic; and supplication, through religion. Magic tries to manipulate the environment by direct manipulation of its components, while religion tries to influence the environment indirectly through prayer and rituals.

As societies develop, religions become organized and more focused on certain core beliefs. These beliefs include a belief in one god, or Gods; and a belief that the world was created by this god or gods. Religious communities also organize hierarchies, rules and laws for behaviour, and codes of recognition for members of the community. Religions may also create a sense of community, extending beyond kinship groups and tribes, and in some cases even into the wider global community.

Religions provide people with a framework within which to evaluate their actions, and to decide whether they are wise or foolish, prudent or rash. They also give them a way to recognize the various kinds of limitations that lie before them in their lives, and how best to deal with them.

The value of the information that religions protect and transmit, ranging from sex to salvation, is such that it needs to be carefully preserved and transmitted, not only from person to person but from generation to generation. In order to ensure the survival of this precious information, religions have evolved systems for coding, protecting and transmitting it.

This is a vital function, and it helps explain why religions have survived for so long. It is also why it is so difficult to change or replace a religion.

Some scientists suggest that religions improve our psychological health by providing us with a variety of methods for dealing with the stresses of life. These methods are not necessarily scientifically tested, but the results of studies that have been done so far indicate that religion can improve a person’s ability to cope with stress, and to build healthy relationships.

Other scientists, however, believe that the benefits of religion are largely due to social and psychological factors, rather than any mystical or supernatural elements.