What Is Religion?

Whether it is the belief in a supreme being or in the sanctity of a pact with a higher power, or the practice of prayer, attending services or participating in rites of passage, religion is a significant aspect of the lives of two-thirds of Americans. Despite a largely secularized American society, it continues to play a role in many areas of life including public policy, psychotherapy, and education. Yet, it remains difficult to define what religion is.

Traditionally, scholars have used a “substantive” definition of religion that defines it as whatever beliefs or phenomena lead people to believe in a transcendent reality. This includes agnosticism and atheism, but also many other faiths that do not have views of disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.

More recently, scholars have begun to employ a “functional” approach that defines religion as whatever practices unite a group of people into a moral community regardless of their belief in any distinctive kind of reality. This includes agnosticism, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, and some Protestantism.

Several notable social theorists have applied these functionalist perspectives to religion, with Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber among the most influential. These approaches have shifted the conversation from understanding religion in terms of its beliefs and subjective states to exploring how it impacts and shapes human societies. Several scientific studies have found that being religious is associated with better mental health, a reduction in depression and anxiety, and lower rates of suicide. While these findings may at first seem like proof of divine intervention, the scientists who conducted these studies understand that other factors must be at play. Religions provide a package of ingredients, such as social connection and rituals, that can improve our ability to cope with the challenges of life.