What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, values, and practices that give meaning to people’s lives and their world. It usually includes sacred texts, symbols, and holy places that may attempt to explain the origin of life or the universe. It also often involves a lifelong commitment to daily religious practice that is meant to bring about personal and societal change. The term is most commonly used to refer to organized religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, some people use it to refer to non-organized religions such as atheism and agnosticism.

In their simplest form, religions offer people the means to attain the most important goals that can be imagined. Some of these goals are proximate, and have to do with making this life a little easier (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living), while others are ultimate, and have to do with the final condition of this or any other human person, and of the cosmos itself.

Religious belief and practices are rooted in people’s natural tendency to seek spiritual and ethical fulfillment, as well as in the fact that human beings are born mortal and will eventually die. Religions help people make sense of the mysteries of life and death, provide a framework for morality, and give meaning to suffering and loss.

They also protect and transmit the resources to attain those goals that are most valuable, whether they are proximate or ultimate. Religions also provide a source of confidence, so that people know who they are, why they are here, and where they are going. And they create extended families, so that people can recognize and be recognized in potentially hostile environments.

Ultimately, most religions are about something bigger than themselves, and so they are sources of hope and optimism, even in the most perilous times. They are powerful answers to many of our most pressing social problems, including out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, health problems, anxieties, prejudices, and the breakdown of the family.

Sociologists have traditionally approached the study of religion from various perspectives, most notably that of Emile Durkheim, who focused on the functions that religion serves for society regardless of its particular beliefs or practices. Other sociologists have used a phenomenological approach, cataloguing observable characteristics of religion in the same way that a zoologist might categorize animals, or an entomologist might classify insects. Yet another approach, the functionalist perspective, is more concerned with the impact that religion has on the quality of people’s lives. It is also the perspective most favored by political leaders, including President Clinton and Senator Robert Dole, who have spoken of the importance of married family life and regular religious practice in preserving American society. This is a view that should be reflected in the federal courts, where judges should be sensitive to the role that religion can play in our public life.