The Definition of Religion

Religion is a broad term that has come to encompass many different beliefs, practices and social interactions. As with other broad terms, the definition of religion is open to interpretation and may differ depending on the context in which it is used. For instance, scholars have debated whether to define religion substantively as belief in an unusual reality or functionally as the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion. Both approaches are valid, though it is important to note that neither approach treats religion as universal or inevitable.

Substantive definitions are generally based on the idea that humans have always needed religion to deal with life’s big questions and fears. This need is derived from the human desire for immortality, or at least a life after death; for a powerful creator who will watch over mankind and provide a purpose to our existence; and for rules that govern our behaviour so that rewards can be earned and punishments imposed on disobedient people.

Alternatively, a functional definition of religion, which is the approach favoured by Emile Durkheim, defines the concept in terms of the distinctive role that a system of belief and practice plays within a society. This approach allows for the inclusion of some systems that are arguably not religious, such as capitalism and science.

Whatever the definition of religion, scientists have a strong interest in it because research shows that having a belief in something larger than yourself can improve your wellbeing. Among the most significant benefits are a sense of meaning in life, which can have knock-on effects on mental and physical health. The sense of a higher power can also help to relieve stress. Studies have shown that those who attend religious services regularly have fewer problems with depression and are more likely to be able to cope with the challenges of everyday life.

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