What Is Religion?

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Religion is a complex and fascinating subject, one which has shaped the world views of cultures from isolated tribes to vast empires. It tries to answer questions that science cannot, such as the purpose of life and what happens after death. It teaches followers to show devotion to their God through prayer and by celebrating religious festivals throughout the year. It also teaches them to behave ethically by choosing good over evil, truth over lies and right over wrong.

Most Religions believe that their God created the Universe. They also believe that He watches over them and rewards those who do the right thing with good things in their lives and punishes those who do the wrong thing with bad things. This creates a moral code that most religions try to follow and encourage their followers to do the right thing.

The question of what is religion has been debated by philosophers and social scientists for over two hundred years. Many of these debates have focused on whether or not religion has an essence. Substantive definitions, such as those offered by Otto, Durkheim and O’Dea, define religion in terms of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. More recently, a different approach has emerged that drops the substantive element and defines religion in terms of the role it plays in people’s lives, an approach known as a functional definition.

A function-based definition of religion allows us to sort practices into a taxon by their behavioural effects and to examine patterns that might help explain how they work, in much the same way that a computer programme might use an algorithm to classify bacterial strains based on the co-occurrence of properties. However, the development of such a concept raises important philosophical issues, issues that are similar to those that might be raised for any abstract taxon used to sort cultural types, such as literature or democracy.