What Is Religion?

Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and actions shared by a group that gives its members something sacred to believe in, someone or something greater than themselves, a code of moral conduct, and a set of social structures to which they must conform. It also usually deals with beliefs about the supernatural and spiritual, about forces and powers that are not subject to human control. Traditionally, scholars have viewed religion as having three dimensions: the true, the beautiful, and the good, which are all a part of a culture’s mythology and philosophy. One can also add a fourth dimension, community, which is a central part of most religious belief and practice.

Some scholars have a purely functional approach to Religion, defining it as the beliefs and practices that create social cohesion or provide orientation in life. Others have a “monothetic” definition, treating the term as meaning a specific group of cultural types (e.g., Judaism or Christianity).

Some have criticized these monothetic approaches, arguing that no one substance can qualify as the “religion” of a group; it must be more than a set of beliefs and practices that belong to a certain kind of culture. Other scholars have endorsed these objections, but argued that the issue is not the same as the question of whether or not religion names a defining feature of some kind of culture, but rather the issue of how one decides which practices to treat as “religions” and which ones should be excluded from this category.

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