What Is Religion?

Religion is a complex social phenomenon. It is widely taken today as a taxon for social practices whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. But it has also been used for a more general genus of social formations, and it is possible to argue that any social phenomenon may be classified as religious if it has certain characteristics.

There are a number of different ways to define religion, and each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages. One way is to use a stipulative definition: “religion is any organized system of beliefs and practices based on the worship of deities or gods.” This has its merits because it makes it easy for scholars to recognize what is religious and to study the various religions that exist. It has the drawback, however, that it excludes people who do not believe in a supreme god or gods from being considered religious. Another approach is to analyze religion as a functional process: a set of cultural activities that provide stability and orientation for life. This has its merits, too, because it makes it easier for scholars to recognize what is religious and to explore the cultural milieus that produce it.

A third approach, exemplified by the work of Paul Tillich, tries to capture the essence of religion in terms of its underlying metaphysical assumptions and cosmological orders. This is a useful approach, but it is not universally accepted and its utility is limited.

It is also possible to analyze religion in terms of the goals it establishes for people’s lives: the proximate goals, which are those that can be accomplished within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living) and the ultimate ones, which have to do with the fate of the individual and the cosmos.

The phenomenological exploration of these dimensions focuses on what is known as the second level of phenomenology. It is the examination of the features that make a particular religious phenomena distinctive, and it may be a fruitful way to understand the role of religion in human history.

Religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that allow people to explore themselves, their societies, and the natural world around them. As such, they remain the heart and soul of what might otherwise be a brutal world of intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, exploitation, and self-opinionated nastiness.

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