The Concept of Religion

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, values, practices and ethics. It is often characterized by an intangible transcendental reality, a community of believers, and a ritualized way of life, based on obedience to moral codes. It may also include sacred texts, symbols and holy places. Religion can be an important source of comfort, security and inspiration for its adherents. It can also be a source of tension and conflict.

There are many theories of the origins of religion. Anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures) and neuroscientists (scientists who study the brain) suggest that humans created religion to satisfy a biological or psychological need. They argue that as humans became self-aware and realized they would die, they reacted with fear and curiosity about the unknown. They sought a way to avoid death or, if that was impossible, a way to move on to a better place.

In the past, scholars have approached the concept of Religion by trying to find a single defining property that distinguishes it from all other forms of human life. This approach, called stipulative or substantial definition, has been criticised by scholars such as de Muckadell (2014: ch. 2). Its main problem is that, without knowing the essence of a religious phenomenon, it is impossible to critique its stipulative definition, for example the absurd one about “ice-skating while singing”. A more useful approach, suggested by Emile Durkheim (1896), is to drop the substantive element and treat religion as any system of practices that unite a group into a moral community, whether or not these involve belief in unusual realities.