Understanding Religion

Religion is a complex human phenomenon that deals with people’s ultimate concerns, which may include questions about the afterlife and what is ultimately meaningful in life. It may also deal with people’s relationships and attitudes toward the natural world and toward other humans and other living things. It usually includes a set of beliefs, and practices that are based on those beliefs, including rituals. It often includes a code of moral conduct and a philosophy that guides people’s daily lives and decisions. It is commonly regarded as a source of comfort, guidance, and strength. It may motivate people to work for social change, and it may influence their health.

One major theory about why humans need religion suggests that it arose out of curiosity about life and death, out of a fear of uncontrollable forces, and out of a desire for hope—a belief in immortality or life after death, in the existence of a loving creator who watches over humanity, and in the sense that there is an ultimate meaning to life.

Historically, attempts to understand religion have ranged from functionalists like Durkheim to psychoanalysts who focus on the mental representations or imaginaires that constitute religious experiences. However, such approaches tend to oversimplify the complex etiology of religion and are not suited to the comparative-historical aim proper to the study of religions. Moreover, such a conceptualization of religion as an idea or mental representation is reductive and ethnocentric. A better approach is a “typology” that uses an analogical procedure. This allows scholars to document specific sets of analogically related affinities that are neither reductive nor ethnocentric.