What Is Religion?


Religion is the societal system of beliefs, practices and codes of behavior that organizes human life. It is a hugely diverse field, with some 80 percent of the world’s population adhering to a religious belief. Despite its diversity, however, there are many ways to approach religion. Some scholars use a substantial definition that considers a practice to be a religion if it is associated with a belief in one or more unique kinds of reality. Others adopt a functional definition that is based on the way that a practice organizes a community’s values and norms, whether or not that function involves belief in unusual realities.

A third, and increasingly important, approach looks at the way that people communicate, organize and express their religious beliefs. Religious communication often takes the form of writing, but it can also involve art, ritual, symbolism and ceremonies, as well as the transmission of ideas through oral tradition. It is also common for religions to create a cosmology, a set of beliefs about how the universe came into being and what its purpose is.

The anthropological research that has been done on religions and their components has found that most of them share certain characteristics. They all deal in some fashion with the salvation of the soul, either literally in terms of a heaven after death as in Christianity, or more generally in a sense of an end to suffering and a release from the pain of existence as in Buddhism. Most religions also share some sort of organization, with a central leader and hierarchy, sacred texts, a clergy or priesthood to govern and administer them, and places, symbols and days that are holy.

Many religious systems are based on the teachings of a single prophet or figure, as in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Some, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, are polytheistic. Others are monotheistic or agnostic. A number of religions are esoteric, which means they focus on inner spiritual experience rather than external forms of worship.

It is thought by some anthropologists that religion evolved in the beginning as humans tried to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather and fertility and success in hunting. They did this by manipulation, through magic, and by supplication, through religion. Magic attempted to manipulate the environment directly by making its forces subordinate to human will; religion sought to do the same through divine intercession and intervention.

Some philosophers argue that the word religion is simply a socially constructed taxon used to categorize cultural types and that there is no such thing as a true essence of a religion. Other philosophers, however, have argued that it is necessary and desirable to try to understand the nature of what we mean when we say that something is a religion. This article explores the philosophical issues that arise in this quest.

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