What Is Religion?


Religions make life as project a little easier by protecting and transmitting the means to attain what are often perceived as the most important goals imaginable. Some of these goals are proximate: those that can be attained within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living), but others may have to do with the final condition of any human person or of the cosmos itself.

Those who believe in God or some other divine force usually think that the universe was created by this being, and that it will be destroyed by it or reformed by it at some point. In addition, most religions have some kind of moral code, which is often justified by the belief that this moral code came from a supernatural source.

Religion is a complex phenomenon, and some scholars have tried to define it in various ways. A good number of them have used a neutral description approach, which emphasizes that a religion can be right or wrong in principle, but that its merits should be judged on the basis of whether it serves the interests of the people who practice it. This is an important contribution to understanding religion, but it does not provide a complete answer to the question of what religion is.

A more sophisticated definition of religion is that it involves a set of activities and beliefs that are organized into systems, whose members share a common language and rituals. This definition reflects the reality that religion is often a social activity, and it does not exclude non-religious activities such as civic involvement or hobbies. Most belief systems have several of these characteristics, and some – such as sports fanaticism – have all of them.

Over the past few decades there has been a shift away from monothetic approaches to the study of religion toward open polythetic ones, which operate under the assumption that most instances that accurately qualify as a particular concept will have more than one property in common with other examples. For clarity and consistency, however, it is often useful to limit the properties that one considers to be religious, so that comparison can take place within a restricted range of cases.

A key feature of good religion is peace and love, not fear and hatred. It leads people to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, to linger with a loved one in a moment of tenderness and to rejoice in the miracle of being alive. It spurns pulpit peddlers of enmity, who try to justify their hate with the pretension that it is for the greater glory of God; and it avoids the pursuit of riches or power, which are often the sources of bad religion.

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