Religion is a system of symbols that establishes powerful, pervasive moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic. While a number of perspectives exist on the nature of God and religion, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz developed one of the most widely-used definitions in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).
Geertz’s definition, which focuses on symbols, emphasizes that all religions are fundamentally different from each other and that there is no such thing as a “religious synthesis” that can apply across cultures. His approach was not meant to denigrate any religious beliefs or practices, but to distinguish them from magic and cults.
There are many functions that religion can serve, but one of the most obvious is social control and the transmission of moral behavior. Religions can also be an important source of moral strength in times of crisis and stress, but only to the extent that they do not become coercive or authoritarian.
Many religions teach that life is a project, that there are goals which can be attained within this lifetime (such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable and successful way of living) as well as in the afterlife or rebirth. Religions can help people deal with the essentially unknown future of human life by providing maps of time (whether cyclical or linear) and space (with some religions viewing the past as something that may be revisited through rituals that allow wrongdoings to be forgiven). In the context of these broad goals, religious teachings often define a good and a bad way of life.