What Is Religion?

Religion is a social phenomenon that serves many functions, including providing meaning and purpose in life, promoting psychological and physical well-being, supporting moral beliefs and behaviors, and sustaining cultural stability and continuity. It often involves rituals that can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike states, and a sense of oneness with others. There is even research suggesting that people who are religious have better health and longer lives than those who are not.

Like other social institutions, religion can change radically across time and cultures. However, it also is common for religion to maintain some features over long periods of time and to mix in new elements. With a growing number of revitalization movements, quasi-religious activities, and new religions, the issue of what constitutes religion is an important one.

Scholars have divided over the best way to understand this complex phenomena. Some, especially those inspired by continental philosophy (see Nietzsche, Friedrich and Foucault, Michel), have argued that it is best to view religion as a set of properties rather than an object with clearly identifiable aspects or features. Other scholars (especially those working in anthropology, sociology, and religious studies) have advocated a more open polythetic approach, whereby any phenomena that can be reasonably characterized as “religion” is classified as such, with no need to specify how many specific properties must be present. This approach makes it easier to identify patterns within the class and allows for explanatory theories to be developed.