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What Is Religion?

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Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, behaviors and values that people accept as authoritative. It often provides a moral framework, gives people a sense of community and helps them deal with stress. Some research even suggests that it improves health. The word religion has many meanings, but most definitions include belief in a god or gods and a set of beliefs about the nature of the universe and human life. It also includes a set of rituals and ceremonies that is performed to honor or worship gods or spirits. Religions are extremely diverse, ranging from large-scale and coherently organized with clear hierarchies (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church with a pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity, or Hinduism) to small-scale with no clear hierarchy (e.g., Rastafarianism or Scientology). Some religions are monotheistic, believing in only one god; others are polytheistic, believing in many gods.

Most religions have a mythology, or story of creation and other fundamental aspects of the universe and human life. Some religions also have sacred texts, symbols and holy places that are revered. Religions may explain the cause of life and death and what happens after death.

Religions give people confidence and a context within which they can explore the limits of their own potential. This exploration is a basic human need and, for millennia, successful protective systems have helped to secure it.

Historically, the earliest religions grew out of tribal totems and ancestor worship. Then came tales of guardian gods and goddesses. Later, they adapted myths of the world’s origin, and stories about the lives of particular gods or goddesses. These religious systems protected and transmitted the means by which people could achieve their proximate and ultimate goals in life.

They also provide a moral framework, give meaning and purpose to life, reinforce social unity and stability, serve as an agent of social control, promote psychological and physical well-being, and inspire people to work for positive social change. They may also support the development of self-esteem and personal integrity, and encourage ethical behavior.

In the end, religion is about relationships: with family members and other people, with the environment and with the divine or spiritual. The most effective religions are those that help people build good relationships and cope with the challenges of living in a complex and dangerous world.

The role of religion in society is complex and should be fully explored by politicians, public policy makers, psychotherapists, and educators. Those who do not understand its fundamental importance risk alienating two-thirds of the population, whose views and needs are often neglected by those who take a purely secular approach to their problems. It is time to recognize the centrality of religion to our everyday lives. This will help us to create a world where everyone can live with dignity and respect, without fear of violence or loss of life. To do so, we need to understand what religion is and how it works.

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