What Is Religion?

Religious beliefs and practices are an enormous source of energy for people around the world, giving them hope and guidance in their lives. But they can also cause great suffering, especially when they are used to impose authority, repress freedom of religion or belief, or justify violence and war.

The concept of religion is a complex one, with many different definitions. Historically, it has referred to belief in the supernatural or spiritual—in forces and powers beyond those under human control. Today, however, the term is most often used to refer to a set of social behaviors that are shared by a group. These are usually characterized by rituals, rules of conduct, codes of honor and disgrace, moral judgments, and a sense of shared meaning.

Religions are thought to have arisen from either a biological or a cultural need. Those who support the biological theory of their origins believe that they grew out of human curiosity about death and the afterlife, and out of fear of uncontrollable forces in nature. They argue that these evolved into a need for hope—hope that life would go on after death, that there was a loving creator who was watching over humankind, and that life had a purpose.

The earliest religions were tribal, with beliefs in natural forces such as the sun, moon, seasons, rivers, and fertility, and in guardian or protective gods. Over time, these developed into more complex beliefs with specific myths and stories and rituals to accompany them. In addition, special deities began to be created—gods that represented aspects of nature or ancestor worship and the like.

Posted in: Gambling