What Is Religion?

The most general definition of Religion is the idea that religious systems protect and transmit the means through which people can achieve their proximate and ultimate goals, as designated within each system. Such proximate goals include salvation, enlightenment, peace, emptiness (such as in Buddhism and Jainism), or the experience of God. Such ultimate goals include achieving immortality or transcendence of suffering. For religions that believe in rebirth or reappearance, this often includes visiting the past to help with dealing with the problems of the present and also the future to ensure that good deeds outweigh bad ones (retrogressive rituals are common).

Many scholars have analyzed Religion as a complex set of beliefs, practices, and values. This kind of analysis is called a “monothetic” approach because it operates with the classical notion that all instances of a concept will share one or more defining properties. Some recent analyses have moved away from the monothetic view and have treated Religion as a family of resemblances rather than as a social genus.

For example, instead of a three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good, some scholars have added a fourth C, which stands for community. Others have taken a more materialist approach to Religion by recognizing the always-presupposed contribution of people’s bodies, habits, and physical culture to their understanding of what it means to be religious. Similarly, they have shifted the focus of the structure/agency debate from hidden mental states to visible religious institutions and disciplinary practices.

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