What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices about the supernatural and the nature of humanity and the universe, often codified in prayer, ritual, scriptures, religious law and history. It is also a moral framework that outlines relationships to God, other believers, the non-believers and the outside world. It is a system of values that provides order, meaning and purpose in life and that helps individuals cope with the unknown and unknowable.

The concept of religion is vastly contested and the word itself can be ambiguous and a source of controversy. Some scholars have argued that narrowly defining religion as the belief in God or spirits excludes many peoples and cultures. Others argue that defining religion as an organized body of beliefs and practices is not sufficiently descriptive or nuanced. Yet others have defended the usefulness of the term as a category within which to compare and analyze various religions, philosophies and ideologies.

Anthropologists and archaeologists, in studying the lives of prehistoric humans, have discovered evidence of religion. This includes ritualized burial practices, art, and objects used in spiritual practice, such as shrines and holy places. Religion is also apparent in the care with which Neanderthals carefully prepared their dead. In modern times, religions serve as social glue and entertainment, providing a sense of belonging to a group and a shared identity. They provide a context in which sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation are held in common.