What Is Religion?


There are many ways to define religion. One can take a functional or a lexical approach, and many scholars have critiqued the idea of a substantive definition that has to include God and spirits and other supernatural beings. Many people have argued that the concept of religion is an artificial category that has nothing to do with human experience and only exists as a taxon for scholarly study, which creates and reifies distinctions between different cultural forms that do not necessarily correspond to the experiences of believers. Others have gone even farther, claiming that the modern semantic expansion of the term went hand in hand with European colonialism and that it is better to treat religion as a complex of social phenomena rather than a single phenomenon or institution.

Whatever the precise realist or lexical definition of religion, it is clear that it has a powerful influence on people’s lives. It teaches them to make sense of the world, provide a framework for morality and ethical behaviour, reinforces social cohesion, provides a source of psychological and emotional well-being, promotes physical health, and sometimes serves as a means of organizing political change.

It also offers people confidence that they can attain the most important goals of life. These may be proximate, such as the achievement of a wiser and more fruitful way of living or of a more rewarding and successful existence in this life, or they may be ultimate, such as achieving salvation from the sufferings and pain of life or the eventual attainment of heavenly joy.

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