Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It may be in terms of people they believe in or gods and spirits, with texts that have scriptural status, or with the natural world. It is also often in terms of the values they hold or their commitments to social and moral norms and institutions.
A steadily increasing body of research in the social sciences demonstrates that religious practice benefits individuals, families, and communities, as well as society as a whole. It enhances health, academic achievement, economic stability, self-control, and empathy and compassion. In addition, religious faith helps people cope with illness and death. It can bring peace and community cohesion, but it can also promote social conflict and even war, as seen in the history of the Puritans and other religious persecutors and the more recent persecution of Jews or wanton bloodshed in central Europe or Northern Ireland.
Most attempts to define religion have been “monothetic”, that is, they have emphasized some defining property or set of properties. More recently, there has been a movement toward polythetic definitions that allow a more diverse range of phenomena to be classified as religions.
However, it is important to understand that the emergence of the concept of religion as a social kind did not wait for language, and that the development of the term “religion” as a social category was itself a product of cultural forces. Therefore, the idea that there are a finite number of “essential” properties or characteristics of religions is false.