Religion, in one form or another, has been a central element of human society for thousands of years. It has given people a moral code and a sense of direction in life. It has also shaped societies from small tribal groups to vast empires. Its influence has shifted in tandem with changing social conditions and changing understandings of the universe.
But the question remains: What is religion? In the past, scholars have tended to define religion functionally as a group of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation. This view treats religion as pan-human, something that exists everywhere and is inevitable. But in recent years, a number of scholars have pulled back the camera lens to examine the constructed nature of the category we call religion.
They have criticized the way we use this concept to sort out cultural types, and pointed out that the semantic range of what we call religion has been expanded arbitrarily over time and place. Some have gone even further, arguing that the notion of religion is not an objective social taxon at all but rather an invention of European colonialism and that we should stop treating it as if it corresponds to something that is outside its scope.
While these challenges have not been overcome, there is no denying the fact that there are many benefits of being religious, including improved learning, health, economic well-being, self-control, morality and empathy with others. Moreover, scientific studies suggest that people who attend church or synagogue have longer lives than those who do not.