What Is Religion?

Religion consists of beliefs and practices concerning what people hold sacred and consider spiritually significant. It encompasses a variety of systems of religious values, such as monotheism and polytheism. It includes belief in a God or gods and their role in the universe, rituals, ecstasy and spiritual experience, sacred writings, divine authority, and the moral code of behavior. It also involves belief in life after death, and it may motivate people to work for social change.

Anthropologists (scientists who study human societies) have suggested that religion developed from human beings’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather and successful hunting. Unlike magic, which tries to control the environment directly through manipulation, religion supplications appeal to higher powers, gods or goddesses. Religious supplications may include drawing pictures of large animals on cave walls to assure success in hunting, sacrificing food and other necessities for the gods, and reciting prayers.

Some philosophers have viewed religion as a reaction to the awareness that humans will eventually die. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, in his concept of historical evolution, emphasized the formative power of religion on human history. French social scientist Auguste Comte, in contrast, in his theory of three stages of human development, favored a more positivistic view of religion and its place alongside science.

Sociologists who study religion are generally in agreement that it has several important consequences for people and societies. It provides meaning and purpose to their lives, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for social change. But it is also possible that religion can become a source of intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, social oppression, and self-opinionated nastiness.

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