Understanding the Concept of Religion


Religion is a cultural phenomenon that serves a number of functions for people, from comfort to moral support to sense of connection and tradition. It also provides a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors, such as treating others fairly and procreating. Research shows that it may even have health benefits.

People need to have faith in something, to have a meaningful life and to orient themselves to the world around them. These needs can be met by a variety of sources, including science, family, and community. But for many people, the primary source of this valuation is religion. People are willing to live by and even die for what they believe in.

For most of its history, the concept of religion was defined by the presence of a specific belief in an unusual reality. This was a “substantive” definition that was widely accepted. However, the last half of the twentieth century saw a shift to what is called a functional view of religion. This is an approach that drops the notion of any particular beliefs and defines religion as whatever social practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those beliefs include belief in unusual realities).

The most common way of working with this functional definition today is with an open polythetic approach, which recognizes multiple properties that are shared by members of the class. It is also possible to work with a closed polythetic definition, which limits the set of properties to a fixed number.