Religion is the belief in and worship of a higher power or a universal spirit. It also includes rituals, symbols, and practices that help believers find meaning in their lives and connect with others. Religious communities can be a source of support and strength during difficult times, and practicing religion has been shown to have many health benefits.
Historically, scholars have used a variety of definitions to describe religion. One approach (known as a substantive definition) focuses on what people believe about the nature of reality. Another approach defines religion in terms of the distinctive role that a form of life can play in a person’s values, beliefs, and priorities. This second approach is sometimes called a functional definition. Its most famous proponent is Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Another functionalist version was offered by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as the totality of any tradition that grounds normative prescriptions for life and society on a worldview and ethos.
In recent years, scholars have been turning to a third way of thinking about religion. Some have argued that it is unfair to talk about religion as a “thing” at all, and that the concept of religion has always been socially constructed. They argue that a natural kind definition would allow us to analyze the relationship between religion and its cultural contexts, including historical processes of European colonialism.