Religion involves a belief in something spiritual, usually a god or gods, but sometimes also about other forces that cannot be explained scientifically. It often includes a moral code that teaches people to treat others fairly and with respect, and it may involve the observance of certain ceremonies. It often also teaches a way to find meaning in life and gives believers a purpose in their lives. It can also offer support and community, and research shows that religion can reduce stress and depression and increase happiness.
Throughout history, scholars have debated what religion is. Some use what is called a “monothetic” approach that defines religion in terms of a belief in some unusual kind of reality, while others take a more functional approach that defines it as the ways in which human beings organize themselves to create their own moral community. These types of definitions can be broad, as in the case of Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern,” or narrow, such as Emile Durkheim’s (1912) definition that religion consists of whatever practices unite people into a moral community, regardless of whether they believe in any unusual realities.
Some critics of religion have gone further, arguing that the concept of religion is an invented category that corresponds to nothing in the world, or even that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. But scholars such as Clifford Geertz and Margaret Smith have argued that, while it is true that the concept of religion has only recently been named, the social reality it refers to is older than that.