What Is Religion?

Religion is a hugely diverse phenomenon. The countless practices that are now said to belong to the category of religion raise questions about how one might understand and sort this social taxon—questions similar to those that would arise for any abstract concept used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, or culture itself. Most attempts to answer these questions have focused on the classical assumption that a concept will accurately describe what it is to be classified with that concept if it has certain essential properties. This is known as the “monothetic” view.

Emile Durkheim’s work was influential in sociological thinking about the functions that religion serves for society regardless of the specific beliefs held by individuals and groups. He noted that religion helps to create and reinforce social stability. It gives people common values, promotes socialization, and provides a source of support in the face of distress or loss. It can also bring people together physically in religious institutions such as houses of worship.

Many religions have moral codes that encourage people to choose right over wrong, good over evil, and truth over lies. They may give people the strength to endure difficult circumstances and avoid despairing reactions like suicide or nervous breakdown. They can also provide a map of the cosmos and help people to deal with the limits of time (e.g., through cyclical or linear conceptions of life and death, through rebirths or reappearances in different lifetimes).

These protective functions are why religion has been so successful throughout the world and across millennia. However, it is important to recognize that they come with serious costs. Many religions have a profound impact on the environment and human rights, as well as on mental health.

While it is possible to be a moral person without religion, most people find that having a spiritual practice of some kind makes it easier for them to live with integrity and do the right thing. Religious teachings can guide us in choosing a life that benefits not just ourselves but others, as evidenced by the fact that most religions emphasize doing good for family, friends, community and the world at large.

In the past few decades, scholars have questioned the monothetic view of religion. Several approaches have been developed, including those that take a more polythetic approach to the term by looking at it as a constellation or assemblage of multiple elements—such as a system, network, or network of systems—that are linked through a shared core of beliefs and practices. These multifaceted views of religion may seem avant-garde, but they build on a long tradition of examining how complex social phenomena can be understood by treating them as a series of related concepts that interact with each other. For example, the Christian theologians traditionally analyzed their way of life in terms of fides, fecunditatis, and fiducias. (See this article for more information about the terminology of these concepts.) These concepts are similar to the notion of a prototype, which refers to an entity that has a number of attributes that make it a useful model for describing something else.