What Is Religion?

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Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, practices, and ethics that people believe in. The term is sometimes used to refer to a specific belief in an afterlife or supernatural beings, but it can also describe other culturally significant beliefs and practices. There is no one definition of religion, and what counts as a religion often changes over time.

For example, the concept of religion was once thought to include all the beliefs of ancient Greece, but now it is common for scholars to use the word to describe a wide variety of spiritual practices that do not include any belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders. This shift from substantive to functional definitions is part of a larger trend in which many social science and humanities scholars are pulling back the camera lens to see how the objects we take for granted—and what we call “religion” in particular—are constructed and contested.

A functionist approach to religion emphasizes the importance of how people interpret their religious experiences. It argues that rituals and ceremonies are not sacred unless they are regarded as such. This understanding of religion as a cultural practice is central to the work of Emile Durkheim and is one of the key insights that continues to shape sociological thinking about the role of religion in society.

The functionist view of religion also explains why it has such powerful effects in society. For example, it may encourage moral beliefs and behaviors, promote psychological well-being, support social cohesion, serve as a form of social control, and motivate people to work for positive social change.