Religion can be defined as a unified system of beliefs and practices that gives its followers something to worship (someone or something supernatural), provides a code of behavior, and offers guidance on how to live one’s life. It also aims to answer questions about how the world works and the afterlife. In addition, almost all religions emphasize doing good for others (either the members of one’s own community or those of other communities). Many evolutionary psychologists are currently studying how religion evolved and why people continue to practice it.
Many scholars take a “functional” approach to religion, which defines it as whatever binds a group together and promotes social cohesion, and gives people a sense of direction in their lives. This definition is often used to contrast it with a realist definition of religion that focuses on belief in unique kinds of reality. This approach is also often associated with the idea that religion is a universal phenomenon.
Emile Durkheim, a sociologist, was the first to define religion in functional terms. He argued that religious faith is what brings together the elements of morality in society and helps individuals to deal with life’s tragedies and transitions, gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives, promotes a sense of stability and cohesion, and provides strength during times of crisis and change.
The functional approach to religion has had a major influence on anthropology. Clifford Geertz, for example, took a broad view of the concept and analyzed the ways in which religious beliefs and practices act to form powerful moods and motivations in people. He argued that these are clothed in such an aura of factuality that they appear to be uniquely realistic.
Other scholars have pointed out that to define religion in terms of beliefs, or even in terms of any subjective states of mind, is a sign of bias and a lack of objectivity. Instead, they argue, it would be better to focus on the visible institutions and disciplinary practices that generate such beliefs and emotions.
Despite its positive functions, religion can also cause division and conflict. The history of the world’s religions is rife with stories of people being persecuted and killed because of their religious beliefs. Many people today argue that religion is on the side of injustice and oppression, and that it should be left to private individuals and kept out of social affairs.
For the most part, modern society no longer takes religion seriously. Secularism and materialism, two dominant ideologies in the West, have made it possible for religion to decline. But in some places in the world, religion continues to play a significant role in daily life, despite being marginalized and attacked from all sides. It is important to understand how and why religion still persists, so that we can learn what makes it work. It might just help us solve some of the biggest problems we face in our human societies. Adapted from wikiHow.