What Is Religion?

Religion describes systems of belief and practice that define what people consider to be sacred or spiritual. Some form of it is found in every culture, although its nature varies greatly from one to the next. It is often referred to as the “folk religion” (from the Latin foedera, meaning family).

Religions make life a little easier in a number of ways. They protect and transmit the means to attain the most important goals that humans can imagine: some of these are proximate, and may be attained within this life, such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living; others have to do with the ultimate conditions of human and cosmos, the final condition that will mark any given individual’s life and death.

They also provide maps of time and space, which help people to deal with (or to accept) the many limitations that stand across the project of their lives. They enable people to understand the nature of birth, death, natural events such as hurricanes, and other matters that are inherently mysterious. They also provide ways for dealing with (or even forgetting) the mistakes and wrongdoings of the past, and for forgiving those who have done wrong to them.

In addition, they give people a context in which to sanction and reward, approve and disapprove, inspire and ideate. In this context, they can do things that might otherwise be considered inhumane or immoral: They may practice their religion scrupulously, generously, devotedly, ecstatically, prayerfully, superstitiously, puritanically, or ritualistically. The benefits of such practices are obvious, ranging from increased health and learning to improved economic well-being and self-control, from greater compassion and empathy to the avoidance of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births and criminal behavior.

Nevertheless, there is much about religion that cannot be explained or understood. Its complex effects are the subject of ongoing debate and research. Some scholars have argued that religion is simply an example of human ingenuity, a way for humans to express their creative power and make the world a better place. Others have drawn analogies between religion and genetics, claiming that the “folk religions” are early, successful protective systems that evolved over millennia. Still others, such as sociobiologists, have argued that religion is nothing more than the consequence of choices that have proved helpful in protecting gene-replication.

The study of Religion began to take shape as a formal discipline in the 19th century, when the methods and approaches of history, philology, literary criticism, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and physics were brought to bear on its mysteries. Since then, there has been no consensus on the best way to understand religion. This article examines the different perspectives that have been developed, and tries to reconcile them. It also argues for the importance of adding a fourth C to Smart’s famous model: community, to recognize the always-presupposed material reality of the people who belong to a particular religious group. This includes their habits, physical culture, and social structures – all of which are, in some way, part of religion.

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