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What Is Religion?

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Religion is a social taxon of cultural forms, but the semantic range of what it can be called “religion” has expanded and shifted over time. The wide variety of practices now said to fall within the category raises questions about whether one can understand this concept as a set of necessary and sufficient properties or if it is better to treat it as a prototype concept, like those that sort out such abstract concepts as “literature” or “democracy”.

Historically, scholars have defined religion as whatever beliefs and practices generate the sense of belonging and moral order which we call community—in other words, a substantive definition. But in the twentieth century, one sees a growing acceptance of an important alternative: to drop the belief in some distinctive kind of reality and define religion functionally as whatever set of activities unite people into a moral community (whether or not those activities involve any supernatural beliefs).

The term religion was adopted from Latin religio, which is a word that means “reverence” or “devotion.” This definition is appropriate for a wide variety of religious experiences, practices, and institutions, even those that do not believe in an unusual sort of reality. It is also appropriate for some of the ways that religions have been characterized, such as those that emphasize the importance of moral conduct or participation in religious rituals.

Although there are many different types of religions, they all have common elements. For example, all of them provide a structure for social cohesion and moral order. They also provide a way for people to make sense of their experience of the world, including its mysteries and problems. In addition, religions often protect much of the information that is essential to human life and well-being: a person’s proximate and ultimate goals, the means by which they can be achieved, the coding of those goals into values, and the transmission of this code from generation to generation.

Students should learn how sacred beliefs—including those about the nature of deities and the universe—can influence behavior and a sense of belonging to a religious community. They should also be able to analyze the role of religious symbols and myths in shaping those beliefs, as well as how specific theologies and doctrines can influence a particular culture’s morality and actions. Various disciplines can help in the study of religion: psychology views religious experience and feelings; sociology and anthropology examine how beliefs and values are developed and transmitted by religious traditions; and literary and other studies seek to interpret the meanings of myths and other items. The best way to get a feel for a particular religion is to read their Holy Book, which contains all of the teachings and stories of that faith. This can be a very rewarding exercise, and will give a student an understanding of how different cultures may differ in their interpretations of the same religion. For this reason, it is important that teachers expose their students to a variety of religions.

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