What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural phenomenon that is a major influence on people’s values and their way of life. It can be studied using sociological tools and methods such as surveys, polls, interviews, and historical analysis. Religion can also be used as a lens to examine other components of culture, such as science and ethics.

Various theories exist about the origin of religion. Some scholars suggest that humans discovered an already existing spirituality, while others believe that humanity created religion out of a biological or cultural need. Some anthropologists, for example, argue that the evolution of human brains enabled us to realize that we will eventually die and so we developed religion as a way to avoid death or find a way to go on to a better place.

Functionalist approaches to defining religion, such as Emile Durkheim’s definition, suggest that any system of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life can be considered a religion. This approach is sometimes criticized for treating all beliefs as equally legitimate and thus for fostering in-group versus out-group sentiments that can lead to religious violence, such as the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials.

More recently, there has been a growing awareness, inspired by Continental philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche (see Nietzsche, Friedrich ) and Michel Foucault (see Foucault, Michel ), of the constructed nature of concepts such as “religion” and our assumptions about what is really true or false about them. This has led to a move away from stipulative definitions and toward realist ones.