What Is Religion and How Does It Affect Society?


Religions are a fundamental factor in human history. They have been instruments of liberation and of coercion, a source of knowledge and art, the cause of wars and peace, and some of the most influential forces shaping societies. Religions are complex, dynamic systems of beliefs, rituals, and practices that make life as a project more manageable. They help people deal with limitations of space and time (some religions see both a cyclical future, with as many 84 million rebirths or reappearances, and the linear progression of life from creation to end), provide ways to understand and repair past mistakes and wrongdoings (retrogressive rituals, where the dead are ‘visited’ to allow forgiveness and healing, are common), and offer hope for the future.

A number of social theorists have examined religion and its impact on society, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Marx argued that religion reflects and reinforces economic inequality and sustains an unjust status quo, a view that is at odds with the more general understanding of how religions are socially constructed.

A more modest argument is made by Kwame Anthony Appiah, who cautions that vast generalizations about religion are dangerous and may even mislead. Rather than seeking a substantive definition that determines membership in the category, Appiah argues that we should look for the functional characteristics of religion. He defines religion as whatever a person’s dominant concerns are that give their lives meaning and direction, whether or not those interests involve belief in unusual realities.