What Is Religion?

Religion is one of the most ancient and persistent features of human culture. It has shaped the worldviews of societies from isolated tribes to vast empires. It has been responsible for moral and ethical teachings, personal and social guidance, and in many cases, the ordering of human life. But it is also a source of conflict, suspicion and violence. What is it exactly? This book brings together some of the most up-to-date scholarship on this ancient and enduring question.

There are as many ways to define “religion” as there are religious belief systems and practices. Some scholars have used substantive definitions that focus on the notion of ultimate meaning and have included such beliefs as agnosticism, atheism, and communism in their analyses of religion. Others have employed formal definitions that are compatible with functionalist theories of the religions, such as those of Durkheim and O’Dea.

Other theorists have tended to focus on religion as a cultural phenomenon. They have defined it as a “genus” of social formations that share certain characteristics. They have also emphasized the role of religion in controlling social behaviour, or at least in maintaining some degree of discipline and conformity among members of society. The idea of a religion as a social genus seems to have emerged in the West, though scholars have pointed out that the concept of social kinds does not wait for language to develop and that there is evidence that such concepts existed in primitive cultures.

The study of religion is an essential part of the academic study of culture. It has also been of great interest to philosophers, especially those who have tried to think about the nature of human religiosity in an objective and nonjudgmental way. The most important work in this area has been done by a number of Continental philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. More recently, philosophers who would not normally be classified as philosophers of religion have taken up the issue of religion, including Hilary Putnam and Derek Parfit.

The modern world poses unique challenges to religion. Endless philosophies, ideologies and truth claims clamour for attention, amplified by instantaneous media and globalization. In addition, people often use their own personal preferences to deal with moral dilemmas. Religions have to work harder than ever to keep their followers loyal and committed. This book uses the latest research to demonstrate that, despite these difficulties, religion remains an important feature of human culture. It is not a panacea, but it can play an important role in promoting moral health and reducing social pathologies such as crime, out-of-wedlock births, illegitimate children, drug and alcohol addiction, and lack of empathy or self-control. It can also foster positive illusions, providing consolation and hope for a better future. Whether you are a believer or not, this book will help you understand this enduring and complex phenomenon. It will also enable you to appreciate the vital contribution that religion has made and continues to make in the lives of millions of humans.

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