What Is Religion?


Religion is a category that has not yet been adequately defined. This is not a problem that relates only to the academic study of religion; it is also true, for example, in the practical affairs of public policy, psychotherapy, and education. The problem is that a definition must be both substantial and functional and must distinguish religion from other members of the same category.

A substantive definition would include belief in a single god or in multiple gods that are equal in power, and it might also extend to a philosophy or set of practices whose primary concern is the ethical or moral issues that can arise in life. A functional definition might include the idea that religious practice provides people with a system of values and a framework for acting in society.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim is generally considered to have been the first sociologist to analyze religion in terms of its impact on social life. He argued that religion creates a sense of community, promotes behaviour consistency, and offers strength to cope with tragedies and difficulties in life.

The 19th century saw the rise of other scholars who studied religion from different perspectives. Hegel, an idealist, emphasized the formative effect of religion in history, while Auguste Comte, from a positivistic perspective, developed an evolutionary model in which the supernatural, the metaphysical, and the empirical were successive stages in human evolution.

Scholars today are exploring new ways to understand religion. Some are focusing on the role that spirituality and religion play in mental health, and others are finding evidence that religious beliefs and practices have beneficial effects on individuals and societies. For instance, studies show that regular church attendance is associated with lower levels of depression (a modern epidemic), better self-esteem, and stronger family and marital ties.

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