What Is Religion and How Does It Work?

Religion is one of the most ancient and pervasive characteristics of human society, influencing lives around the globe for thousands of years. It is a phenomenon that is not easily defined or understood, but is most often conceived of as being a source of moral values, an emotional and psychological support network and a source of inspiration. Using the latest scholarship, this book explores what religion is and how it works in a variety of cultures and contexts.

Formal approaches to definition seek to find ways that religious facts can be grouped together on the basis of secondary traits. Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) exemplifies this approach, with its emphasis on shared beliefs and practices. Such a definition might define religion as a belief in the supernatural, faith in the afterlife, a spiritual path that leads to salvation (either in a literal sense with a life in heaven as in Christianity or in a more symbolic way through nirvana as practiced by Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism) and a set of practices that include sacred rites and rituals, a clergy or priesthood, sacred books, and places and symbols that are sacred to believers.

Sociological functional definitions also have their adherents, such as Paul Tillich’s (1957) definition, which defines religion as whatever dominant concern orients a person’s values. This definition has its critics, however, for treating any belief in unusual realities as a religion and failing to include some religious traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some forms of Buddhism and Jainism.

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