What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics that can be embraced by individuals, families and communities. It can be a source of support in times of trouble or an avenue for finding comfort in the face of life’s challenges. Many religions also promote charitable activities and emphasize a concern for the well-being of others. Practicing religion has been associated with positive psychological benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety.

Most attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic” in the sense that they operate on the classical view that a concept will accurately be identified when it possesses certain defining characteristics. These characteristics include belief in a transcendent entity, a sense of supernatural order, communal practice and ritual, and a specific kind of discourse that claims to have divine authority.

Other scholars have sought to develop “polythetic” approaches to religion. Polythetic analyses use a more general class of properties to identify a religious phenomenon rather than trying to find a single defining characteristic. These classes of properties, which have been described as a type of prototype structure, are based on the observation that phenomena tend to co-occur more frequently than might be expected by chance alone.

The term “religion” was derived from the Latin verb religio, which means “scrupulousness” or “devotedness.” It is often assumed that to define religion as a social genus, or to describe it in terms of institutions or disciplinary practices, involves eliminating mental states and replacing them with objective, observable features. This is not necessarily true. Some cultures have religions without beliefs in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.

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