Religion consists of belief in a higher power, rituals, and a system of morality. It can help people deal with problems such as death, suffering and pain. It can also give them a sense of purpose in life and strengthen their connection to family, community and tradition. Some research even suggests that it may affect health. But there is a lot of debate about what exactly is religion, and how it can be defined.
Philosophers have discussed the nature of religion for thousands of years, but it is difficult to come up with a definition that satisfies all the requirements. Ordinary language usage focuses on behavior: praying, attending church, obeying rules and rituals. But this view does not take into account many important aspects of religion, such as beliefs.
A more useful approach to the question of definition has been to examine the purposes religion serves in different societies. Edward Burnett Tylor used a functionalist approach in his famous book The Origins of Religion (1871). He believed that all cultures have some kind of religion. He based his definition on the idea that religious phenomena are organized around the quest for ultimate meaning.
He thought that this quest can involve a variety of activities, such as idol worship and the belief in spirits. But the basic underlying feature of religion is the notion that one’s own existence is dependent on the will of God. This concept of dependence engenders fear and devotion. The hope that God will provide for one’s needs and protect against evil enlivens faith.
Other functions of religion include a source of social identity and a framework for morality. It can also serve as a basis for political movements. But for many, the most powerful function of religion is its capacity to comfort and heal. For example, some patients with serious medical conditions fear that they will be punished or abandoned by God. This fear can lead to depression and a decreased quality of life.
For these reasons, it is essential to understand religion in the context of the human need for faith and meaning in life. In the past, religion has provided answers to questions about the universe, human origins, morality and science. But as some critics have argued, when a religion provides complete answers to these important questions it discourages exploration of other areas, denies its followers a broader perspective and can suppress social, moral and scientific progress.
The formal strategy of defining religion involves looking for patterns in known cases. Some scholars use a structural analysis, such as Zeldin’s (1969) narrative structure of a fall from and return to an ideal state, to define religion. Others have adopted a verstehen approach, seeking understandings of religion in particular social worlds. This method is implicit in ethnographic and participant observation research. It is also common in sociology.