The Definition of Religion

Religion has a profound impact on the lives of people around the world. It gives meaning and purpose to life, provides a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors, serves as a source of social control, promotes psychological and physical well being, and may inspire individuals to work for positive social change. There is no one answer to the question of why religion exists. Some anthropologists (scientists who study human societies and their origins) think that religious practices developed in response to uncontrollable elements of the environment such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting. The anthropologists further believe that early humans tried to manipulate these elements using magic and supplication through religion.

Religions vary in their beliefs and rituals but most deal with some form of salvation in this lifetime or the next. This can be in a literal sense as with going to heaven or hell after death, or in a more symbolic sense as with attaining nirvana, peace, or love in this life. Religions also usually have a code of behavior, some form of organization and worship, sacred books and objects, a clergy or priesthood that administers the religion, holy days, places and symbols that are sacred to the faith, and an overall feeling of community and tradition.

There have been many attempts to define Religion. The most common are the monothetic approaches that use a classical theory of concepts to determine whether something is a religion by determining whether it has any of a set of defining properties. These are based on the idea that a concept can be accurately described by an example and that every instance of the concept will have one or more of these properties.

More recently, there has been a movement away from the monothetic definitions of Religion to what are called polythetic approaches. This involves examining a wide variety of characteristics that are associated with religion to see if any patterns emerge. The polythetic approach is similar to the way a scientist might sort thousands of bacterial strains on the basis of a few hundred properties. This allows for surprise discoveries and new explanatory theories.

It has been argued that a definition of Religion should be based on the unique role it plays in society. The functional definitions of Religion are based on Emile Durkheim’s ideas and the works of Charles Horton Cooley. These approaches drop the substantive element of believing in a distinctive kind of reality and instead focus on how religion brings about specific types of social interactions.

These functions of Religion include giving direction to people’s lives, providing a sense of belonging and connection to traditions, and encouraging healthy behaviors like regular exercise. Some studies suggest that there is a link between religious involvement and health and longevity. It is also a source of comfort in difficult times and provides a sense of spirituality. Lastly, religion has been responsible for starting educational institutions, hospitals and charities which are the backbone of social welfare systems throughout the world.

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