How to Define Religion

Religious beliefs and practices influence two-thirds of the world’s population. People who practice religion are more likely to care about their neighbors, volunteer for charity, and help those with mental illness or addictions. They are less prone to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and murder than the general population. Regular spiritual practice has also been linked to better health, learning, and economic well-being. And it can reduce problems like prejudice and anxiety. But it is difficult to define religion, and many definitions fall short.

Most definitions involve some belief in a supernatural or spiritual dimension, but it is also possible to have a religion without any such beliefs. Almost all religions share some common features, such as a community and place of worship; sacred actions or rituals; a code of ethical behavior; a holy book; a priesthood or clergy to lead the group; and a founder or leader who gains godlike status.

Psychologists and neuroscientists argue that humans need religion because it answers important emotional needs. It provides a sense of meaning and purpose to life and helps us cope with uncontrollable forces such as death. It offers hope for a future after death and an afterlife with a loving creator who watches over humanity.

Other scholars are pushing for a more functional definition of religion that drops the belief in unusual realities and instead defines it as whatever practices unite a group of individuals into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any such reality). This approach is similar to the one taken by Emil Durkheim, who defined religion as whatever set of social functions it serves in a society, even when that society does not believe in any extraordinary or supernatural reality.

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