What Is Religion?

Religion is a collection of beliefs and practices that organize the human project by encoding, protecting, transmitting, and interpreting the meaning of what it means to be a person. It is a system of organizing information that has proved essential to human life and flourishing, and that is too important to be left to chance.

It is commonly thought that religion answers human questions about the ultimate origin and nature of the universe, our place in it, and what happens after death. It may also answer questions about human relationships, morality, and social order. Religion also addresses people’s most fundamental concerns about the world around them, such as a fear of uncontrollable forces, a desire for immortality or life after death, and hope in the face of these fears and difficulties.

A number of different ways have been suggested for sorting the variety of practices that are called religions into a recognizable class. One way is to take a sociological approach and consider religions as one of several social genus, along with politics, language, art, and culture itself. This approach has its problems. It tends to treat religion as a purely social phenomenon, ignoring the fact that there are many different kinds of religious practices. It also assumes that there is a single kind of religious practice that exists in all cultures.

Another approach is to view religion as a complex of beliefs and behaviors that have evolved in response to real-world situations. This approach is based on the notion that all religions address fundamental, universal human concerns. This allows for the inclusion of non-Christian religions that are not monotheistic and allows for a more flexible definition of religion. It does not, however, provide a way to determine what is “true” about a religion, since it is difficult to evaluate claims about what is true in the absence of a testable objective standard against which to measure them.

The third approach is to examine religions in terms of their function. This allows us to recognize that there are many positive aspects to religious belief and behavior. It is widely recognized, for example, that practicing religion can help a person deal with life’s stresses and can enhance learning, economic well-being, self-control, empathy, and moral beliefs and behaviors. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy, and education have missed this point.

This article is intended to encourage a move away from the monothetic set of definitions that have become attached to the concept of religion, and toward an understanding of it as a polythetic complex. A polythetic approach is analogous to the sorting of bacteria by a computer program, which looks for patterns of properties rather than trying to pin down what exactly makes a particular strain a bacterium. It is also similar to the approach used in social sciences to treat a “concept” like “literature” as a family-resemblance concept rather than a necessary and sufficient condition for human existence. Such an approach is not without its critics, but it has the potential to be useful in clarifying the concept of religion.

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