What Is Religion?


Religion is a system of beliefs, values, and practices that people use to make sense of their lives. Its practitioners often believe that regular religious practice can help them find meaning, purpose, and hope in life, while providing comfort in times of distress or loss. Religions can also provide guidance for moral behavior and ways to treat other people. They can also establish institutions, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, that serve their followers.

Religion can be a source of community and a force that unites people in common cause, whether it is to fight wars or poverty. It can also be a source of power, and has been used both by and against governments throughout history. Many different religions exist on the planet, with varying beliefs and practices. Some are monotheistic (believing in one god), while others are polytheistic, believing in many gods. A large number of people, over 6.2 billion by some estimates, consider themselves religious at this time.

Philosophers have offered a variety of definitions of religion, and it is not easy to pin down exactly what makes up a religion. Some define it by referring to gods and supernatural beings, while others focus on spirituality and the concept of a higher reality. Still others, like the American philosopher William James, focus on personal religion, saying that it can be defined as any feelings, acts, and experiences an individual has with whatever he or she regards as divine (1902:39).

The study of religion has been influenced by the growth of scientific history, archaeology, and anthropology. The rise of the modern social sciences also made it possible for comparative studies, which allowed researchers to compare religions in different cultures. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, philosophers began developing theories about the origin of religion. These were based on the belief that human beings were both curious about the big questions of life and death, and afraid of forces they couldn’t control. Some believed that people’s need for hope led them to turn to religion, which provided a way to control their environment and ensure their survival.

Other philosophers, such as the German Marxist Friedrich Engels (1818-1883), took a more negative view of religion. He said that it was a form of projection and was an expression of the aspirations of working-class people. Other philosophers focused on the role of religion in society, such as the French revolutionary socialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1848-1960). His idea was that religion was an attempt to fill the void created by capitalism, and that it maintained the stratification of classes and perpetuated inequality. For this reason, he described it as the “opium of the masses.” Others, such as the English philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and the American philosopher Xenophanes Kant (1724-1804) focused on the relationship between religion and morality.