The Concept of Religion

Religion is, broadly speaking, human beings’ relations to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In theistic religions, these concerns are usually expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods or spirits; in naturalistic or humanistic religions, they may be expressed in terms of humans’ relationships with or attitudes toward the broader human community or the natural world.

Most of the world’s religions share some of the same features: a set of beliefs; rituals; a sacred place and time; and a hierarchy with figures of authority. They also often have myths, symbols, and stories that help believers make sense of the world. Some scholars use the term “religion” to refer only to belief in a supernatural being or forces; others, such as sociologists and historians, include practices such as ancestor worship and folk traditions in their definition.

While the concept of religion may seem avant-garde to some, it is actually quite old. Christian theologians, for instance, used to analyze their way of life using a multifaceted system of concepts called fides, fiducia, and fidelitas.

Psychoanalysts, including Sigmund Freud (1895-1939), have offered many explanations of the origin of religion. He based his ideas on the Oedipus complex, which involves unresolved feelings of attachment to and hostility toward parents.

Other scholars, such as Émile Durkheim (1858-1926), have defined religion in terms of its function to create social solidarity. More recently, Paul Tillich (1957) has suggested that religion can be defined as whatever predominates in a person’s values and organizes their orientation to the world around them.

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