What Is Religion?

Religion is about a universal human need to feel that life has meaning and value. It is the primary way that this valuation is expressed and transmitted from one generation to another, and even to a larger community of humans and into the cosmos itself. People can also have faith in the work of science and in their family, but they cannot have the same confidence that life is meaningful without some sort of religion.

Originally, in Western antiquity, the word “religion” referred to an ethical or moral code that distinguished one group from another, such as taboos and promises and curses. Eventually it came to refer to the gods themselves, and finally to those things that people believe are sacred, like rituals, sacrifice, and moral rules. Today, the word “religion” has been used to distinguish a broad taxon of social phenomena that vary in form but share a certain degree of consistency and continuity.

Most scholars have favored a substantive definition of religion, which includes all those beliefs that qualify as religions and that imply a belief in a unique kind of reality. This is in contrast to a functional definition, which focuses on the role that religions play in a person’s life and may include any number of non-religious activities.

A third way of thinking about the concept of religion is to add a fourth C, for community, because many religions bring together people who care for and support each other. For example, many religions have a code of conduct that puts limits on their members and makes them a socially responsible community. They also have charitable programs, such as schools and hospitals, that make them a social control system.

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