What Is Religion?

Religion is an organized system of beliefs, values, and practices that believers use to express their faith. It may also involve rituals that help them connect with the divine and feel a sense of purpose in life. It can include a belief in one or more gods, a focus on the afterlife, and an adherence to moral laws. It can also involve a community of people who share similar beliefs and practices, such as followers of Christ (c. AD 1–70), Muslims, Hindus, and Bahais. It can also encompass a set of teachings that are regarded as divine revelations, such as those of the Bible (c. 330–400 CE), Jesus of Nazareth (c. AD 0–33), the Muslim prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632), and the Buddhist teachings of Siddartha Gautama (c. 563–483 bce).

Many theories of religion define it as whatever group of social practices unite people into a moral community, whether or not they include beliefs in unusual realities. This functional definition contrasts with substantive definitions of religion, such as Emile Durkheim’s (c. 1892–1912) definition, which defines it as whatever system of social activities makes people feel a sense of unity and solidarity.

Others, such as Talal Asad (c. 1941–2001), argue that to understand religion as a mental state or interior experience misrepresents its historical reality. Instead, he urges scholars to shift attention from hidden mental states to visible institutional structures that produce those states. This perspective is called the symbolic interactionist view of religion.

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