What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices centered on the idea that there is one or more divine beings, spirits, or forces that influence human life. It also includes a code of conduct and a belief in an afterlife, as well as ceremonial activities such as prayer, sacrifice, worship, meditation, and other spiritual and contemplative practices.

Many different ideas about what religion is have been proposed. Some, like the social scientist Emile Durkheim’s, turn on the function of religion, arguing that it creates solidarity in society, provides meaning and purpose for life, helps to regulate emotions, and serves as a moral guide for behavior. Others, like the theologian Paul Tillich’s, turn on the axiological definition of religion, arguing that whatever concerns a person most is his or her religion (whether those concerns include the belief in unusual realities).

Still others, such as the anthropologists and sociologists who focus on religious societies and ritual, take a symbolic interactionist approach to religion. They view it as a complex of ideas and experiences that involves a person’s relationship with something or someone sacred and the resulting emotional and psychological states, including sadness, fear, love, and devotion. It also involves a person’s relationship with God and with other members of the religious community.

It has been shown that the practice of religion has many benefits for individuals, families, communities, and nations. Regular practice increases health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. It also decreases crime and delinquency, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse.

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