What Is Religion?

Religion is a global phenomenon that affects the lives of almost everyone in the world. It is believed by many that religion provides a way to achieve the goals that are most important in life. These may be proximate, such as a better, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of life; or they may be ultimate, involving the process of rebirth or even the fate of the universe itself.

Religion is often defined as a unified system of beliefs and practices that gives its adherents something to believe in, a goal or purpose for their lives, and a code of conduct by which they should judge the actions of others. Those definitions, however, are usually thought to be too broad and do not account for the full range of religious phenomena. More recently, scholars have sought a more narrow approach to the study of religion. A growing number of scholars define religion functionally, in terms of the role that certain beliefs and behaviors play in human societies.

Anthropologists have long viewed religion as an early and, for millennia, successful protective system that allowed people to explore the potentialities of their brains and bodies and of their environments (Noss & Grangaard 2008). They also found that the earliest human religions addressed the most basic needs for survival—the weather, birth, and hunting success. As the human species evolved, these protective systems became increasingly complex. They now include a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices that are practiced by the 6.5 billion people who live on the planet today.

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