Religion is the set of beliefs and practices that many people around the world consider to be sacred, and it can also include the philosophies that support them. Whether or not these religions are true, they do seem to have the power to give meaning and purpose to life and to provide emotional and psychological comfort and security. They may also encourage moral conduct, provide a framework for thinking about and addressing difficult issues, promote physical and psychological well-being, and even inspire some people to work for social change.
One approach to understanding religion involves describing it as a social genus, meaning that it is present in more than one culture. This approach, however, raises a number of philosophical issues that can’t be resolved easily. For example, it is not possible to distinguish all cultures that have religion from those that do not, so if we define religion in such a way that it includes all of the cultures we know of, we will find that there are plenty of practices that fit this description but do not actually belong to any religion.
Another approach to understanding religion is to treat it as a paradigm, or overall model, for how we see systems of belief. This approach was largely pioneered by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote that “religion is a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973).
For many people, religion is not just a collection of beliefs, but a way of living. Many religious beliefs are based on teachings that encourage doing good for others, and this has led to the creation of some impressive charitable organizations. In addition, most religions stress the importance of being good to family, friends, and strangers, which can help individuals build stronger relationships.
Many religions also have specific rituals and ceremonies that can be deeply intense experiences. These can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a sense of oneness with the people around you, and other emotional and psychological states. For some people these can be transformative, and for others they may simply serve as an opportunity to express their devotion and commitment to a particular religion.
Almost all religions have specific teachings about how to treat other human beings, and this has resulted in the establishment of some wonderful institutions that strive to improve the lives of those they touch. In addition, most religions have specific teachings about the afterlife and cosmological orders, which can offer people hope for a better future, and some form of justice in this life (rituals that visit the past to allow people to repair mistakes or make amends are common).