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What Is Religion?

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Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that make sense in the world, that have meaning for people and provide meaning to their lives. Often, religions are associated with a deity or god, but they can also be based on other things such as the natural environment or human nature. Some people see religion as a group of moral teachings and beliefs, while others see it as a way of life.

It is common today to define religion as a taxon of social practices and to think of it as consisting of a number of different systems such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Others, however, prefer to see religion as a genus that encompasses all religious phenomena and that is present in every culture. This view has been popularized by sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, who saw religion as a social phenomenon that provides the means to attain certain goals in life, goals that may be proximate (a better, more fruitful, charitable or successful way of living) or ultimate (the transcendence of this or any other life and even of death).

A second approach is to understand religion as an evolutionary process that is shaped by cultural contexts. This perspective has been used by anthropologists such as Edward Burnett Tylor and by French philosopher Auguste Comte. It also has been employed by a variety of other sociologists including Herbert Spencer and the philosophers Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. This view stresses the power that religions have to transform and control societies and that it leads to hostility and violence motivated by differences between religious beliefs.

Neither of these perspectives is definitive or even close to universal. Whether one defines religion substantively as belief in spiritual beings or functionally as those activities that promote social cohesion, there are people who do not believe in disembodied spirits or explicit metaphysics and who still participate in a religious system. The same is true for definitions of religion based on the use of particular rituals or specific texts.

Despite these problems, the term religion continues to be useful for understanding the diversity of religious phenomena and the ways that they interact with social, economic, political and historical processes. Moreover, the concept of religion is constantly being revised as scholars engage in a dialectic with particular historical and sociological inquiries. It is in this dialectical relation that the concept of religion comes to be defined as a sociologically constructed category. It is through this dynamic that scholars have come to appreciate the richness and complexity of religious phenomena and to see their importance in the world today. Attempts to capture this complexity have taken many forms, from the single criterion definition of religion proposed by Edward Tylor in 1871 to the more comprehensive approaches offered by Paul Tillich and Robert M. Sapolsky in the late twentieth century. The goal is to create a conceptual tool that allows for the identification of religion in all its facets and that can be used to understand the role it has played and will continue to play in the lives of people worldwide.

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