How to Define and Understand Religion

Religion is one of the most complex and fascinating of human phenomena. It involves belief in and worship of the divine, a coded set of values, a community, rituals, and ideas about life. It is the source of some of the most beautiful, moving and powerful art and architecture in history as well as the most enduring and universally recognized of human traditions such as music, dance, drama, poetry and explorations of nature that issued into science (though it is only relatively recently that the religious component of science has been decoupled). It also provides a framework for moral beliefs and behaviors and may even influence people’s health and lifespan.

But it is difficult to define and understand. It is so broad that there are many different beliefs and practices that might be called “religion”. Many philosophers have struggled with this question.

Some have sought to address this problem by trying to find a way to discriminate between phenomena that might be thought of as “religion”. This has led to what is known as a polythetic approach.

This focuses on the idea that religion is a system for the monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmission of information of high value to a group of people. It is this ecclesial dimension of religion that makes it so important.

It is this information that must be protected because, as the Greek philosopher Polybius noted, “the mass of mankind are wild and uncontrollable; they must be made to fear in order to restrain them.” This is why so many religions focus on punishing bad behavior and encouraging good behavior and why so many religions have a strong element of social responsibility.

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