What Is Religion?

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Religion is a category of human phenomena. It manifests itself in a wide range of cultural forms and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to define religion clearly. It seems to be generally assumed that religion has something to do with gods and supernatural beings or some sort of spiritual dimension or greater reality, but that is not necessary and many religions exist without those features. The most important characteristic that distinguishes religion from other human valuation systems is its intensity and comprehensiveness. It is this that gives religion its distinctive word.

The purpose of religion is to protect and transmit the means to attain the most important goals imaginable. These goals may be proximate, within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living), or they may be ultimate, in relation to the final condition of this or any other human person and even of the cosmos itself.

Research suggests that religious beliefs and practices contribute to the well-being of humans by helping them live longer and be less prone to depression and substance abuse. It also helps them become more compassionate and cooperative with others and to avoid violence motivated by differences in religion.

Until recently most approaches to the study of Religion used a “monothetic” model, believing that any given practice satisfies the definition of religion only if it shares a certain number of defining characteristics. However, more recent developments in the social sciences have led to the adoption of a polythetic approach that views religion as a class of human phenomena and seeks to understand it by studying its different manifestations and how they share certain basic properties.