What Is Religion?

Religion is the set of beliefs and practices that help give meaning and value to life. It has a power that distinguishes it from other phenomena; it causes people to live by and at times die for what they most value. It also serves to transmit that valuation from one generation to the next.

There are a number of ways to approach the study of religion. Many social scientists use substantive definitions that base membership in the category on a belief in a distinct kind of reality. Emile Durkheim’s “ Elementary Forms of Religious Life” exemplifies this type of definition.

Others prefer a functional approach. This defines religion as whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve beliefs in supernatural realities. This approach is sometimes called a polythetic strategy because it allows for different types of properties to cluster together and appear to have a common cause.

Some scholars argue that substantive and functional definitions of religion reflect a Protestant bias. They claim that it is better to shift attention from hidden mental states to the visible institutions that produce religion.

Still other social scientists, especially those who study the brain and mind, suggest that to understand religion it is necessary to look at what people actually do. For example, studies show that people who say their religion is very important to them are much more likely to engage in specific behaviors on a daily basis than those who do not report being religiously active.