What Is Religion?

Religion is a phenomena that arises out of people’s need for faith, meaning, and value. It involves beliefs and practices that people are willing to live by and even die for. It has been a source of social cohesion and moral order in human history. People also seek faith and meaning from other sources such as science, art, and family, but these other phenomena do not meet the criteria for the term religion.

Sociologists, philosophers, and historians have offered many different definitions of religion. Some include belief in a supernatural entity or entities while others exclude such non-theistic religions as Buddhism and religious Satanism. Then there are those who define religion by its function and treat it as pan-human, that is, a feature of all cultures. These definitions have their place but they do not give the full range of what religion is.

The most useful definition of religion is that it is a system of values, beliefs, and practices that organizes people’s lives and gives them meaning and direction. Religion includes the cultus, ritual and practice, as well as the doctrinus, the ideas that underlie the beliefs. It is a complex structure with many dimensions and is the most important factor in people’s lives.

Among the most influential thinkers in this field have been Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. All three studied the social impact of religion and were concerned with how it relates to society and culture. Their work is not only of historical interest but remains relevant to our modern world and to our understanding of human life.

In sociobiology the basic argument is that early and, for millennia, successful protective systems are tied to the potentialities of the human brain and body and to the necessity for survival. Once these protective systems are established they create the security to allow other explorations of human possibility and environment. This exploration is called somatic exploration, because it is carried out primarily through the body itself.

As the exploration is carried out it creates a context of sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation. This context is a religion and it is within the system of a religion that humans find the confidence to pursue explorations into their own nature and into human and environmental possibility. This is how religions grow and change, sometimes in cooperation with government power, sometimes in antagonism to it. This is how they remain important forces in the creation of knowledge, the arts and sciences and even technology. They are, in a very real sense, the map on which humanity is traveling.

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