What Is Religion?

Religion is a complex of beliefs and practices, but it also involves a valuation of those beliefs. The valuation can be in terms of pleasure, beauty, power, social status, or morality. Religions have a deep impact on the daily lives of people and societies. Virtually all long-running and seemingly insoluble problems in the world have religious roots, whether in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Cyprus, Kashmir, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, or even the Philippines. It is for this reason that some sociobiologists have argued that religions are not so much true as useful, and thus deserve to persist.

Many scholars treat religion as a social genus, a category-concept that contains a wide variety of practices. It is a taxon that is paradigmatic of the major so-called world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but that can also include local or tribal traditions such as those of China or Cherokee.

Other scholars, however, have a more specific view of what religion is, and it tends to exclude some of the beliefs and practices that many people passionately defend. Their definitions tend to be functional, based on the belief that some practices or ideas are inherently “religious” because they serve as a basis for solidarity or provide a life’s compass. This view of religion has been applied to the practices of Buddhism and Satanism, for example.

A related approach has been to use the word “religion” to mean a particular way of being. This is the view that has been most popular in academic circles, and it has also dominated popular culture. This view of religion has been influenced by the idea that most religions are based on a belief in god or, at least, in some supernatural being.

These stipulative definitions are often contested, not just because of their logical inaccuracies (although that is also a concern) but because they are based on the assumption that one can either offer a real or lexical definition of religion and that this will be correct, or that it is impossible to know what makes something a religion. The latter point seems particularly misguided because it ignores the fact that a stipulative definition will be assessed not for its truth value but for its utility, and that assessment will be relative to a purpose.

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