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The Concept of Religion

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Religions are systems for monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmitting information which has proved to be of the highest value, from person to person and (even more important) from generation to generation. Such information relates to a wide range of issues, from sex to salvation and everything in between. This information is entrusted to a class of experts, called religious specialists, who may be priests, witches, shamans, gurus, imams, rabbis, monks or nuns, or any number of other people.

This information is not only very valuable, it is also extremely sensitive, since it reveals our deepest motives and motivations, which are in many ways irrevocable. This combination of sensitivity and power makes the system a dangerous one for the outsider to penetrate. Religions are therefore designed to be secure, and their security is a function of organization. Religions are organized around a variety of structures and practices, including sermons, commemoration or veneration of deities and saints, sacrifices, feasts, trances, initiations, matrimonial and funeral services, prayer, meditation, music, art, or public service. They can be large, encompassing the entire world or a single village, and their organizational structure may be hierarchical or egalitarian. Religions are also concerned with acquitting their members and making them “saved” or “righteous,” which requires an ongoing process of assessment and evaluation.

Many critics of the concept of religion argue that it is an invention of modern Western European culture and colonialism, and that we should abandon the idea that the term identifies a real social reality. These critiques are often based on the claim that there is no such thing as a religion, or that all religions are the same. While these claims are certainly not without foundation, they miss the point that religion is a term that describes a broad and diverse set of social realities.

For this reason, the best criticism of the concept of religion seeks to identify the assumptions baked into it that distort our grasp of its historical realities, but does not conclude that there is no such thing as a religious reality. It does this by identifying the categories that are commonly used to describe religion, such as belief in spiritual beings and afterlife, or by focusing on a particular religion’s practices.

However, this approach does not preclude the possibility that a religion could emerge in the future that does not fit any of these categories. A new category might be needed to capture this type of phenomenon, and the problem might be solved by simply adopting a more inclusive definition of what is considered religious. This is why a more robust definition of religion is so important. It is a necessary step in the search for a meaningful philosophy of religion.

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