What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs, values and practices that are shared by people in a particular community. It focuses on something that is considered sacred, usually a god or spirit. It also includes moral codes and social rules. People often feel that their religion helps them connect with other people and gives meaning to life.

Sociologists and other scientists use different approaches to analyze religion. Psychologists, who study the mind, argue that religion is a way to meet emotional needs such as fear of death. Neuroscientists think that certain parts of the brain have circuitry that can cause religious experiences. Anthropologists believe that early religion developed out of attempts to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting. They say that these attempts took two forms, manipulation, through magic, and supplication, through religion.

A number of philosophers have discussed the definition of religion. Most have taken the classical view that a concept can be accurately described by a single property that distinguishes it from other phenomena. This approach, known as monothetic, has been criticized for being arbitrary, especially in the case of religion, since there is such a wide range of phenomena that could be considered religious.

Over the past several decades there has been a shift towards a more complex understanding of what it is to be religious. Scholars now recognize that there are many different ways to be religious and that not all of them should be classified as religion. This new approach is known as polythetic. It tries to distinguish between various types of religious behaviors by looking at their properties rather than trying to find one property that distinguishes them.

One of the most important features of religion is hope. It involves a desire to bring oneself into friendly, beneficent communion with the Deity. This desire engenders the apprehension of Divine help, and the belief that in numerous instances this assistance has been conferred in response to prayer. The apprehension of Divine protection stirs the emotions, and the belief that such protection is secure engenders joy.

Another important feature of religion is the cultus. This includes a variety of rituals and practices designed to express the valuation and to stimulate emotions. It also includes a belief in alleged supernatural events and the expectation of a rewarding afterlife.

While cultus is a feature of all religions, it can be argued that it is not sufficient to define religion. Other things are necessary to describe religion, such as the code of behavior that distinguishes it from magical acts or the doctrinal elements that give it its identity. Taking these into account, a good definition of religion might be something like: Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings and actions that brings its followers together for the purpose of promoting moral order, societal cohesion, and personal spiritual growth. It focuses on a group of supernatural forces or powers that are beyond human control and is supported by a code of morality.