What Is Religion?

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Religion answers fundamental questions for people, ranging from how to treat one’s family and neighbors, to how the universe works (though not quite as efficiently as science does). It also helps people feel a sense of belonging with others by fostering feelings of love, hope, and community. It can even provide a framework for morality, guiding people to behave ethically and be good citizens of their communities.

Some scholars have a functional approach to religion, treating it as whatever beliefs and practices help generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. They define religion in this way because they believe it is a common human phenomenon that shows up in every culture, which is why it is so often seen as inevitable.

In contrast, some scholars are not content to treat religion as an invariant feature of humanity and are more critical about the concept itself. They use the metaphor of a computer program that sorts different strains of bacteria by prototypes to argue that religious concepts can be sorted in much the same way. The result is that when enough characteristics appear together, a religion is said to exist.

They also point to the fact that the concept of religion grew and shifted hand in glove with European colonialism, leading to the current semantic expansion of the term. In addition, some scholars have pointed out that to understand religion in terms of beliefs or any mental states is a Protestant bias and that the focus on structures is more accurate.