What Is Religion?

Religion is an incredibly complex concept, one that has been defined in many ways. The study of religion is a cross-disciplinary endeavor, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies and most recently cognitive science. These multiple fields have brought a variety of definitions to bear on the term, and there is still much debate about what it means to be religious.

Some thinkers, like Emile Durkheim, have focused on the functions that religion performs for individuals and society, rather than examining specific beliefs or practices. This perspective continues to inform sociological thinking today about the nature of religion.

In this view, religion is a way of life – a set of embodied rituals and habits that mark one as part of a certain social group. This is a broad approach that considers not only the formal aspects of religion, such as belief and rites, but also the invisible psychological processes that are associated with them.

Other scholars have rejected formal approaches to religion, arguing that they rely too heavily on secondary traits and thus fail to capture the essence of religion. This view has emphasized the experience of numinousness — a sense of wonder at the existence and mystery of something beyond our everyday knowledge. It has also emphasized the role that religion plays in moral development, as well as in providing comfort and support. It is a source of community, tradition and connection to the past, as well as a guide for how to live in this world and the next.

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