What Is Religion?

Religion is a human phenomenon that reflects the diversity of human experience. It is not just a set of beliefs and practices but, more importantly, it is a way of valuing. In fact, it is the most intensive and comprehensive method of valuing that humans have ever developed. It provides a sense of purpose to people and allows them to overcome feelings of loneliness and fear by creating a community of like-minded believers. Moreover, it helps them to deal with questions that science cannot answer, such as the meaning of life and what happens after death.

Religions are based on a belief that something or someone is essentially more important than human beings and that this higher level exists in a different dimension than the mundane physical world. They also usually involve a belief that this spiritual/psychic realm contains beings who are significantly more powerful, and often wiser and more knowledgeable, than living, embodied humans. In addition, they usually believe that these beings are concerned with the fate of human beings, and that their decisions influence the future of the earth and humankind.

It is sometimes argued that the term “religion” is used to describe an entity that appears in every culture, and it is certainly true that religions may have many of the same elements, such as a central authority (like the Pope or the Vatican), a hierarchy of clergy and laity, worship, prayer and meditation, rituals and feast days, holy places, a moral code of conduct, and beliefs about gods and spirits. However, a number of scholars have rejected this idea of a monothetic definition and instead have treated religion as a social genus. This approach looks at the various ways that human beings value things and then classifies them according to those values. It is a scientific approach that has the advantage of being able to identify those characteristics that are unique to religions.

This view of religion has been called a “functional” definition because it looks at the way that people systematically orient their lives in accordance with their values, thereby giving them a sense of purpose and making them feel part of a larger community. It is therefore a more scientific approach to the topic and one that has been widely accepted by scholars.

A further development of this definition is the ‘a-functional’ approach, which has been introduced by anthropologists and other social scientists working in this area. This is to look at the ways in which individual religious systems organize and control their followers, and it is in this regard that the most dramatic variations are seen. In some cases, such as in the case of Roman Catholicism, this leads to an extremely hierarchical structure, with a clear line of authority between the Pope and other dignitaries, bishops and cardinals, and priests, as well as a strict code of conduct and a series of sacred texts and holy objects. In other cases, such as in Hinduism, the system is extremely loosely structured and very diverse.