What Is Religion?

Religion is a concept that has been applied to a very wide variety of social practices. Some of these have been characterized as so-called “world” religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism or as so-called indigenous religions such as the religion of China or the religion of the Cherokee. Others have been described as non-religious practices such as atheism or communism, which are based on a philosophy rather than a faith.

Anthropologists believe that many early forms of religion developed as human beings attempted to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as the weather and the success in hunting, by appealing to an outside force. This appeal was in the form of magic, which aimed at directly controlling the environment through ritual, or of religion, which aimed at a more indirect control through the Divine.

This latter type of religion sought to address questions that science could not answer and in the process provided the answers that would help people make sense of their lives. It was a spiritual rather than a practical endeavor and it led to a feeling of being in friendly communion with the Divine.

The vast range of practices that have been identified as religion raises two philosophical issues. First, they are characterized by a lack of consensus on what is meant by the term. Second, the occurrence of such a diversity of practices within a single category calls into question the classical view that concepts have defining properties.

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