What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics. It includes a belief in one or more gods and/or goddesses, a code of conduct governing morality, the afterlife, and reincarnation. It may also include sacred texts, symbols and/or places of worship. It is the source of a large proportion of human art and architecture. It is the inspiration for most of the world’s music, dance, drama, and literature, as well as the scientific study of the cosmos, which was once known as ‘natural philosophy’.

In the broadest sense, it is a means of coping with life and its uncertainties. It enables people to recognize their place in the universe, understand their past, present and future and create a framework for dealing with all three. It provides a context for community and family, for friendship and love. It is the source of much societal and ethical behaviour, but, since ancient times, it has been a powerful force for division and violence, persecuting groups of people and even going to war over religious differences.

It has been argued that narrowing the concept of’religion’ by limiting it to belief in a particular deity or in a specific set of dogmas excludes many religions, such as Jainism and Buddhism, which emphasize exploration of what is inside the body in terms of enlightenment, peace, emptiness or Buddha-nature. It has also been argued that such a definition is misguided because the deeper motive for religion is the desire to connect with something greater than ourselves.

Religions protect and transmit the knowledge and means to attain the highest goals imaginable. Some of these are proximate, that is, they can be achieved within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living) or during the process of rebirth. Others are ultimate, that is, they have to do with the final condition of this or any other human being and of the cosmos itself. The latter are the object of awe and reverence. Religious faith provides comfort in the face of death, and it can give meaning to life’s experiences and even to suffering. It is often the basis for a strong sense of personal identity and purpose, as well as for self-control and self-discipline. It can also lead to the formation of extended families that go beyond the kinship group and tribe and to make of all nations into one community. Religions can also provide security and confidence in hostile environments. They can also enable people to deal with life’s greatest difficulties by transforming fear into hope. These are some of the reasons why the concept of religion is so central to most peoples’ lives, and why a totally secular approach to public policy, psychotherapy, education, or any other area of human activity cannot work for two-thirds of the planet’s population.