What Is Religion?

Religion is an organized system of beliefs and practices that give people something to believe in, someone to worship, a moral code, rituals, a place to meet with others, a sense of community, a way to seek spiritual and emotional help, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and a source of social support. Religious traditions vary greatly, but many share common features. These include a belief in some sort of supernatural power, often referred to as God or gods; the idea that there is salvation from evil or suffering; myths and symbols; and a leader or founder who achieves almost godlike status.

Sociologists and anthropologists who study human cultures and human origins often take the view that religion developed as a response to a cultural or biological need. These theories typically suggest that humans created religion to satisfy their curiosity about life’s big questions, fear of forces they cannot control, and desire for eternal life or a chance to escape death.

A third view focuses on the way that people use and make religion in their everyday lives. This is a functional approach to religion, which differs from the two previous theories in that it drops the substantive requirement for membership in the category of “religion.” Emile Durkheim, one of the first sociologists to study religion, used this definition and argued that religious beliefs and practices have the function of uniting people into a moral community.

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