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What Is Religion?

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Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and values that provides meaning and value to human life. It is an important source of inspiration for much that is most valuable in human culture: art and architecture, music and drama, food, family structure and the explorations of the cosmos which issued into the natural sciences. It is also the source of many of the most serious ethical questions which humans face: the problem of evil, the treatment of women and children, a sense of sin and punishment.

Religions are organized into a variety of denominations, sects and groups. These include the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) as well as smaller, less common groups. There are also individuals who describe themselves as religious but have no affiliation with any religion or denomination. These are sometimes referred to as New Age believers, Wiccans, Neopagans, Agnostics or Atheists. Some scholars have used very broad definitions of religion in order to explore the whole range of human religious beliefs and activities, while others have adopted more narrowly defined categories. These definitions are often referred to as “substantive” because they determine membership in the category by the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality.

One of the most basic functions of religion is to provide a way for people to evaluate the value of what they are doing, both in terms of how well it serves them and in terms of its ultimate significance to them. People need to find something that is worth living for, and in some cases even dying for, and that is what makes them willing to live according to the values of their religions, to make sacrifices in its name and to orient their lives toward it.

In some religions, this is a spiritual goal of attaining a greater understanding of the universe and of the nature of god(s). In other religions, it is a moral goal of becoming a better person through the teachings of their particular religion or by following its rules of morality. In still other religions, it is an esoteric goal of attaining the knowledge of the truth of the universe and of god(s) through some sort of revelation or mystical experience.

Most religions have developed out of human curiosity about the great issues of life and death, as well as the fear of uncontrollable forces. These were transformed by religion into hope, a desire for immortality and life after death, a loving creator who watches out for humanity, and an ultimate meaning to human existence. In a broader sense, religions provide a sense of security in a world which is full of doubts and fears. In this sense, they are the opium of the people. (See agnosticism; atheism; humanism; pantheism; monotheism; polytheism). For more on this topic, see apologists; astrology; Bible; divination; faith; God; Heaven; Hell; jihad; prayer; ritual; sin; theology. This article is part of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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