What Is Meant by Religion?


Whether or not you believe in a higher power, many people find comfort and strength in their religion. It provides structure and tradition, promotes a sense of belonging, reduces stress and anxiety, stabilizes emotional variability and helps them navigate life’s challenges. A growing body of research shows that religious practice can improve health, academic achievement and economic well-being, as well as encourages compassion, empathy and self-control.

Historically, many scholars have attempted to define what is meant by religion, but most definitions are not without problems. For example, some argue that focusing on beliefs in supernatural beings and cosmological orders is too narrow. Others point out that defining religion in terms of inner states is influenced by a Protestant bias and that we should instead focus on social structures.

Another approach, which anthropologists have often used, is to look at the way rituals and ceremonies express and communicate values and ideas. This is known as the symbolic interactionist view. For example, a religion might create myths about the origin of the world and tales of gods and goddesses, or it might have rules for behavior and rituals to help cope with life’s difficulties.

Anthropologists have also studied how religions develop, and they have found that the earliest religious traditions arose along the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. These early religions were polytheistic, meaning that they recognized more than one god. Some anthropologists have suggested that humankind created spirituality out of a combination of biological and cultural needs. They believe that religion developed when humans became self-aware and realized they would eventually die and needed a reason to live or a hope of an afterlife.

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