Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It usually involves beliefs about what is beyond the observable world, as well as a set of rules and guidelines that are meant to be followed here on earth. In its more traditional forms, it also deals with salvation, which can either mean saving the soul in a literal sense with a heaven after death as is the case with Christianity, or in a more symbolic sense such as reaching an end to suffering like nirvana as is the case with some Eastern religions such as Buddhism. It also typically includes worship and rituals, a hierarchy of clergy or priests that administer the religion, and places, symbols and days that are deemed to be sacred.
The word religion derives from the Latin religio, meaning “scrupulousness”. This reflects the fact that the earliest religious traditions included taboos and obligations to adhere to certain beliefs or practices. Moreover, they often involved a process of delineating the universe into two comprehensive domains, one sacred and the other profane. These divisions and their boundaries were usually reflected in the belief system’s myths and stories about gods and spirits.
Several scholars have attempted to define religion. Durkheim’s functional approach, which focuses on its social function of creating solidarity, is one example. Paul Tillich’s axiological definition, which focuses on its guiding role in life, is another.
A significant number of people worldwide have some kind of faith-based beliefs. For many of these, their religion can play a critical role in their lives, helping them cope with the challenges that life throws at them, providing strength when they are weak, direction when they feel lost, and comfort in times of sorrow. It also appears to be good for them: a growing body of evidence suggests that it is associated with better health.
Faith is not without its problems, however. For instance, religious beliefs and institutions can sometimes be irrational, as can the ideas that underlie them. They are often also based on unsupported claims and myths. As a result, some people may feel dissatisfied with their faith-based beliefs and turn away from them. Others may choose to leave their faiths altogether, and this can lead to disillusionment, depression and even mental illness. It is important to address these issues and to try to make religion a positive force in people’s lives. This is why there has been a recent shift in thinking about religion, with scholars trying to move the debate from beliefs and subjective mental states to visible structures.