What is Religion?


Religion is the name given to a set of beliefs, rituals, symbols and places that a group or individual adopts as their framework for understanding the world. It is also a way to organize social life and gives people the motivations to behave morally, and the means to do so. In addition, it provides a map of time and space and enables people to cope with the limitations that stand across the project of their lives, whether they are psychological, physical, cultural or cosmological.

Interest in studying the phenomenon of religion dates back at least to Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 BCE) and Herodotus (c. 484 BCE – c. 425 BCE). Its importance as a resource and source of inspiration for human creative endeavor is clear from the fact that it is behind virtually all the great art, architecture, music, dance, drama and poetry, as well as the explorations of the cosmos which issued in the form of the natural sciences.

Theories of religion vary widely, ranging from the functionalist to the nonreductionist. In general, scholars have looked for patterns of behavior and belief to help explain what makes a religion tick. They have also compared the different characteristics of religious belief and practice to find out what it is that sets them apart.

The definition of religion as a social genus is important because it suggests that the concept itself has always been present in human culture, but that scholars have only recently come to recognize it. Some of the most interesting theories have been those that are rooted in sociobiology, and argue that religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that are based on the potentialities of the brain and body and on a need for survival.

Scholars have sorted the characteristic properties of religious belief and practice into categories such as practical, experiential and emotional; narrative or mythical; doctrinal and philosophical; ethical and legal; and social and institutional. The latter category includes a range of activities, from governing to teaching. In some cases, such as the study of Hinduism, a multi-faceted approach is taken, in which all the categories are studied.

Some critics of the term ‘religion’ have argued that to define it as anything but a social structure is not accurate and reveals a bias of Protestantism, with its emphasis on hidden mental states. Others, such as the philosopher Rodney Needham, have argued that it is impossible to understand religion in terms of its institutions and disciplinary practices without bringing in the notion of subjective mental states. In the end, however, the question of what constitutes a religion will probably be answered by how many of its properties are found to be present in any particular case. For purposes of focus or clarity, one might therefore prefer to work with a closed polythetic or monothetic approach, which limits the number of properties. In this case, the definition of religion will be a limiting one rather than an exhaustive one.

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