The Concept of Religion

Religion is the system of beliefs, practices and values that humans use to organize their lives. It consists of those things which are indispensable to human flourishing, from the sacred and transcendent to the everyday and mundane. Religions protect and transmit this information, which is of the highest possible value, from person to person and over time (and thus evoke the distinctive word ‘religion’).

It is widely accepted that religion has many beneficial effects on individuals, families and nations: it promotes health, education, economic well-being, self-control, morality, family stability and empathy with the suffering of others. It also reduces the incidence of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, poor health, anxiety and prejudice.

However, it is equally well recognized that this positive side of religion can be obscured by its negative effects when it is manipulated or misused. The perversion of religion has been a prime cause of social disintegration, hatred, sexism, poverty, war and oppression throughout history.

The concept of religion is a taxon for sets of social practices, and the paradigmatic examples are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The study of religions has generally been comparative rather than normative, avoiding the pretense of judging one religion against another, and instead studying them phenomenologically.

When analyzed from this perspective, religions can be seen as structures which enable people to cope with the fact that they live as projects, oriented towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures. They provide maps for dealing with the numerous limitations that stand across the project of human life: what is wise and prudent, what is foolish and rash, what is harmful and good?

Religious systems provide evaluation criteria and a sense of purpose for these limitations, and they are the basis of many human institutions. For example, the sense of responsibility prompted by religions is responsible for a great deal of charitable work, and it also underpins the formation of many social organizations such as hospitals, schools, scouts, maternity units and youth groups.

It is also the source of many forms of spiritual experience, including prayer, meditation and mystical experiences such as transcendental awareness. Such experiences are often referred to as ‘religious’, but they may be characterized by the sense of awe and mystery that is found in all cultures, and which is the experience of the holy. It is the feeling that we are in the presence of something much greater than ourselves, and which provides the inspiration for many artistic works, such as art, poetry and music.