Religion is the belief that there are supernatural beings or powers, that humans are destined for eternal life in some kind of afterlife or cosmological order, and that certain moral/ethical, social, and political principles should govern human behavior. Unlike science, which has very specific methods and aims, the concept of religion is broad enough to encompass a vast array of activities, goals, and beliefs. It is often viewed as a cultural genus, although some writers (such as Richard Dawkins) have suggested that it should be seen as a species of mental pathology.
The term religion encompasses many practices, beliefs, and values that have been central to human cultures throughout history. Some of these are universally recognizable as religious (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) while others are more local or regional in nature, for example, the native religions of Africa and Asia. There are also many newer religious movements that are attempting to revitalize the practice of religion and reclaim a more prominent place for religion in modern societies.
Historically, religious ideas have provided explanations of the natural world as well as mechanisms for maintaining psychological and social well-being, and have served as the foundations of moral/ethical, economic, and political reasoning. In addition, religions have provided a framework for understanding and dealing with events and problems that science does not address, such as morality, death, and suffering.
The field of sociology has long been interested in the role of religion in society. Some of the earliest sociologists such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber attempted to understand the social impact of religion by studying its various functions. Durkheim argued that religions form community, bind people together (social cohesion), promote behavior consistency (social control), and give meaning and strength to people through life’s transitions and tragedies (morality).
More recently, some scholars have emphasized the importance of the cultural context of religion, and the need to study religious beliefs, practices, and experiences within their appropriate cultural framework. This approach has been criticized by those who argue that the field of sociology has been overly focused on studying modern Western religions, leaving out other important religious traditions such as Eastern religions and non-Christian faiths.
A number of philosophers have also addressed the definition of religion, with some advocating a functional approach and others favoring a substantive approach. Some of the most notable examples of a functional approach are Karl Marx’s argument that religion reflects and reinforces the social stratification of society, and Emile Durkheim’s idea that religion provides the opium of the masses. Some philosophers have resisted the notion that there is such a thing as religion, instead focusing on philosophical reflection on God, such as bare theism or agnosticism.
Regardless of the definition used, most agree that religion has a powerful effect on society. It affects the lives of individuals, families, communities, nations, and the world. It improves education, health, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. It also helps reduce crime, drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, and prejudices. It can even help people cope with the loss of a loved one.