What Is Religion?

Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings and actions which unites a group into a moral community. Religious life deals with what is usually called the supernatural or spiritual, with forces and powers beyond human control. It also involves a code of moral conduct and the idea that some things are sacred or holy. Religions are generally organized around some form of worship, a holy book or books, and an elite or clergy which administer the religion. They may have many other symbols, rites, and practices.

The origins of religion are not fully understood. Some anthropologists (scientists who study human societies and cultures) believe that religion began as a response to a biological or cultural need in humans. They suggest that when human beings became self-aware and could think about the future of their own lives, they were frightened of death. They needed a way to cope with this fear and a means of rebirth or survival after death. They created a spirituality which they thought would give them the answers to these questions.

Other anthropologists and other scholars have suggested that religion began as a response to the need to control nature and society. They suggest that when human beings could not fully understand the laws of physics and how to apply them to their lives, they felt helpless and dependent on a mysterious, supernatural Being (or Beings) who controlled the world. They believed that this Being had the power to direct natural events for their good or ill, depending on their need at the time.

Still others have proposed that religion is a response to human anxiety and fears. They suggest that when human beings were frightened by natural disasters, they needed a reason to be afraid or a way to explain them. They invented a god to comfort them and provide an explanation for why things happened. This helped to relieve their fear and made them feel safe.

Most religions deal in one way or another with salvation, the process of obtaining or attaining an ultimate goal. This may be a literal salvation from the evils of this world, as in Christianity, or a symbolic salvation such as nirvana, as in Buddhism. Often, the religious system will offer a path to these goals through a set of rites and rituals, a sacred book or books, a clergy or priesthood which oversees them, and certain places, days, symbols, and attitudes which are considered holy.

While there is disagreement over the substance of what religion is, most people do agree that it includes a belief in something or someone special, a code of moral conduct, and devotional or contemplative practices such as prayer or meditation. There is a trend towards what is called a “functional” definition of religion, which does away with the requirement for a belief in an unusual kind of reality and instead defines religion by its function as a unified system which unites a social group into a moral community.

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