A religion is defined as a system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices
related to the supernatural, but what actually constitutes a religion is
subject to much dispute in the field of theology and among ordinary people.
Practices based upon religious beliefs typically include:
* Regular assembly with other believers
* Some religions have a clergy, leaders of and helpers to the adherents
to the religion
* Some ceremonies or liturgy unique to the set of beliefs
* A means of preserving adherence to the canonical beliefs and practice
of that religion
* Codes for behaviour in other aspects of life to ensure consistency with
the set of beliefs, i.e a moral code, like the Ten Commandments of the
Old Testament, flowing from the beliefs rather than being defined by
the beliefs, with said moral code often being elevated to the status of
a legal code that is enforced by followers of that religion
* Maintenance and study of scripture, or texts they hold as sacred
uniquely different from other writings, and which records or is the
basis of the basic beliefs of that religion
Adherents of a particular religion tend to gather together to celebrate holy
days, to recite or chant scripture, to pray, to worship, and provide
pastoral and spiritual assistance to each other. However, solitary practice
of prayer and meditation is often seen to be just as important, as is living
out religious convictions in secular activities when in the company of
people who are not necessarily adherents to that religion.
What do religions have in common?
The word religion derives from the Latin word religare, meaning "to join, or
link" and classically understood to mean the linking of human and divine.
Accordingly, one might begin by defining religion as a system of beliefs
based on humanity's attempt to explain the universe and natural phenomena,
often involving one or more deities or other supernatural forces. Such a
system of beliefs can be distinguished from branches of philosophy such as
metaphysics which seek to address many of the same questions. However, the
philosophy of religion was once regarded as being part of metaphysics.
Two identifying features of all religions are that to some extent they all
(a) require faith and (b) seek to organize and guide the thoughts and
actions of their adherents. Because of this, some people contend that all
religions are to some degree both unempirical (see empiricism) and dogmatic,
and are therefore to be distrusted. A system of thought that is purely
rational would be a science rather than a religion, and a system that is not
in the least dogmatic would be unable to guide its adherents in any way.
Comparing religion to spirituality
Many Westernerners prefer to use the term spirituality rather than religion
to describe their form of belief. This may reflect a large-scale
disillusionment with organized religion that is occuring in much of the
world (see Religion in Modernity). However, proponents of many forms of
spirituality seem to represent a movement towards a more "modern" - more
tolerant, less counter-factual, and more intuitive - form of religion. This
is evidenced by apparently greater religious pluralism and movements such as
the ecumenical movement within and transcending Christian denominations.
There are corresponding moderating movements within Islam and other
It is possible, and perhaps advised, to keep in mind that there can be a
rigid distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of religion versus
the spiritual dimension. People can often gain security from such things as
regular attendance at Church, deepening knowledge of Scripture, and the
social comfort of fervently agreeing with other believers. This can be, and
sometimes is, done without a corresponding spiritual dimension, so that some
people could be seen as distant from God, but very 'religious', and
conversely those who are spiritually strong may have come to reject much of
the recognised paraphernalia of established religion.
Indeed, some would feel that this is central to the beliefs of the founders
of some religions: for example, Jesus was very critical of some aspects of
established religion, indeed declaring himself as coming for all peoples,
'Jews and Greeks', so transcending even the notion of religion.
People can come to see religion as having no spiritual or supernatural
basis, meaning that e.g the modern ceremonies and canons of the Church have
almost completely grown away from, or even are contrary to, the original
Divine revelation or source. This was true for example in the times of the
worst excesses in pre-Reformation Christianity, when 'Indulgences' (excusal
of sin) were for sale, and corruption was endemic in Church appointments. Or
some would hold that extreme religious practices such as some modern
punishments under Sharia law, or the burning of heretics in history, was not
at all what God intended us to do.
Religion can therefore for some of the above reasons draw itself into
disrepute through the weaknesses of its practitioners, when spirituality can
be independently, but invisibly, strong and flourishing.
Religion in Modernity
In the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, religion,
especially Christianity, has suffered a great deal of damage, both to its
reputation, its power, and its membership. Some historically Christian
Western countries, particularly in Europe, show declining recruitment for
priesthoods and monasteries, and studies in the UK show a fast-diminishing
attendance at churches, synagogues, etc. The demographic group that is
"losing faith" the most rapidly is the most well-educated classes.
Explanations for this effect include the rising infulence that science
wields in modern society, the development of what some call "secular
religions" such as Marxism and Anarchism, and the hostility that many feel
towards evangelical religions in an age that places greater emphasis on
toleration. However, in many parts of the world, religion is far from
declining. In the United States and in Latin America, for instance, studies
show that religion is as strong as ever, and in the Middle East
fundamentalist Islam has been growing rapidly, as attested to by the rise of
extremist movements in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and many other Islamic
states. For inquiry as to the causes of this dissilusionment, see "Modern
causes for hostility to religion."
Modern causes for hostility to religion
As noted above, in the developed world mainstream religions have been on the
decline. This decline is apparently in parallel with increased prosperity
and social well-being. The reasons for the decline are complex and
ill-understood, but probably include some of the following features.
* Distorted Message
Many religions have (or have had in the past) an extreme approach which
produces, or produced, practices which are not acceptable to some people:
e.g. extreme restrictions on female dress, and severe restriction on diets
and activities on certain days of the week. Some people feel these measures
are a distortion of the faith in a God who advocates universal love. Others
see the measures as a clear indication that religion is fundamentally
* Self promotion:
Some individuals are seen to be in positions of power and privilege through
promoting their own religious views, e.g. the Bhagwan interlude last
century, the Moonie movement, and other cults. This self-promotion has
reduced public confidence in anything with a 'religion' label. Similarly,
increasing reporting of cases of abuse by the clergy of several religions
understandably reduces public confidence in the essential message.
* 'Promoting ignorance' view:
People who are agnostic see early years education in religion and
spirituality as a form of brainwashing, and therefore some people concur
with the Marxian view that religion is the opium of the people, with
addiction fostered when people are too young to choose.
* Common sense objections
Religions postulate a whole other reality which verges on the
metaphysical,and even some believers have difficulty in accepting religious
assertions about the supernatural realm, and about the afterlife. As a
result, people reject the concept of religion in its entirety, and turn
their backs on the more ordinary and acceptable beliefs, including a belief
* Objection to superficial features
People can form a negative view, based upon the visible manifestations of
religion, e.g. ceremonies which appear pointless and repetitive, arcane
clothing, and exclusiveness in membership requirements.
* A view of religion as negative and forbidding
Some assume that religion is the antithesis of prosperity, fun, enjoyment
and pleasure. This causes them to reject it entirely, or to see it as only
to be turned to in times of trouble. However, many people from many faiths
would confirm that their faith has brought them self-fulfillment, peace and
joy. Believers therefore feel that faith has the potential to enrich and to
expand everyone's life.
Many of these causes for hostility are a reaction to inevitably worldly
events and people; religious believers feel that it is sad to see that
people are turned away from their spiritual and eternal dimension by
concerns which are based on very limited and transitory features.
Accounting for religion
All religions explain the reasons for their existence in their own terms,
but modern scholarship has brought new tools to the task of accounting for
the phenomenon of religious belief, in naturalistic terms. Especially in the
fields of neurology, neuropsychology, and evolutionary psychology, new
breakthroughs offer a hope of explaining religion in scientific terms.
Why do religious views dominate so many diverse cultures that have had very
little or no contact? Why is some form of religion found in almost every
human group? Why do humans often accept counterfactual statements in the
name of religion? In neurology, work by scientists such as Ramachandran and
his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego  suggests
that they have found evidence of brain circuitry in the temporal lobe that
gives rises to intense religious experiences. In sociology, Rodney Stark has
looked at the social forces that have caused religions to grow and the
features of religions that have been most successful. For example, Stark,
who claims to be an agnostic, hypothesizes that, before Christianity became
established as the state religion of Constantinople, Christianity grew
rapidly because it provided a practical framework within which non-family
members would provide help to other people in the community in a barter
system of mutual assistance.  In evolutionary psychology, scientists have
considered the survival advantages that religion might have given to a
community of hunter-gatherers, such as unifying them with in a coherent
Some cognitive psychologists, however, take a completely different approach
to explaining religion. Foremost among them is Pascal Boyer, whose book,
Religion Explained, lays out the basics of his theory, and attempts to
refute several previous and more simple explanations for the phenomenon of
religion. Essentially, Mr. Boyer claims that religion is a result of the
misfunctioning or overfunctioning of certain subconscious intuitive mental
faculties, which normally apply to physics (enabling prediction of the arc a
football will take only seconds after its release, for example), and social
networks (to keep track of other people's identity, history, loyalty, etc.),
and a variety of others.
How do religions differ?
While Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all claim to worship the same god,
each religion has different beliefs. Jews believe that their deity is the
one and only God. He created the earth in 7 days and will one day send the
Messiah to earth to deliver them from their oppression. Christians accept
this same God, but believe that the Christ has already appeared in the form
of Jesus. Unlike the Jewish belief of Christ, the Christians proclaim that
He came to earth to set God's children free from sin, rather than from
oppression. Muslims believe in the same God as the Jews and the Christians.
Like the Jews, they differ with the Christians as to the deity of Jesus, but
accept the Virgin Birth as a miracle of God. The role of Jesus in Islam is
as the Messiah and amongst the distinguished prophets, one of whom is
Muhammad, believed to be the final and last messenger.
There are a great many other religions, and a great many ways in which they
differ. These differences focus on key differences between the most
influential monotheistic religions.
Questions that religions address
Religions are systems of belief which typically answer questions about the
* the divine, the sacred and the supernatural,
* our purpose as beings, on earth, goals in this life and possible other
states of being like heaven or nirvana,
* what happens to us when we die and how to prepare for that,
* the nature of Deity (or Deities) (cf God) and what She, He, They, It
wants from us,
* our relationships with Deity(-ies), the sacred, ancestors, other
people, and the world around us, that is, how to behave well in
Generally, the different religions and the non-religious all have different
answers for the above concerns. Hence, scholars can classify a religion
according to the characteristic answer the religion gives for the above
Comparison of sources of authority
In addition, scholars can classify a religion according to the nature of the
authority to which the religion refers.
* Universal religions have no prophetic founder. For example, Hinduism
claims to be the science of the spirit. The various gods of Hinduism
are the projections of One Reality that transcends subject/object split
on the mind.
* Monotheistic religions are focused on a single Deity. They often
involve doctrines and also often have a professional priesthood.
Examples of monotheisms include: Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam
and the Bahá'í Faith.
* Polytheistic religions involve many deities. Usually, each deity is
considered a separate entity (as opposed, for instance, to Christianity
which considers the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as one). Polytheistic
religions often flourish in less centralized societies, where each
individual can adapt a portion of the religion as their own. This kind
of religions gives more freedom to the practitioners who often hold to
little dogma. Examples of polytheisms include: the mythologies of
ancient Greece and Egypt, and modern Pagan and Neopagan religions such
as Wicca or Asatru.
* Shamanistic religions are a broad category of religions based around
worship of ancestors or spirits rather than "Gods." Shamanistic
religions typically are limited to small geographical areas and rarely
achieve national or international organization.
* Pantheistic or natural religions see everything in nature an aspect of
a spiritual plane. Such faiths include (to various degrees) Shintoism
and several animistic traditions.
* Some faiths, perhaps better termed spiritual philosophies, involve
extensive practical teachings for achieving human happiness or
equanimity in the natural world with a lesser focus on the
supernatural. Examples: Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Generally while individual religions may differ in sources of authority,
they share many common traits, such as ritual, concern with the afterlife,
regulation of social behavior, and belief in the supernatural.
Dealing with alien religions
Adherents of particular religions deal with the (more or less) divergent
doctrines and practices espoused by other religions in several ways.
Examples of each exist within most major religious systems. People with
exclusivist beliefs typically explain other religions as either in error, or
as corruptions or counterfeits of the true faith. People with inclusivist
beliefs recognize some truth in all faith systems, highlighting agreements
and minimizing differences, but see their own faith as in some way ultimate.
People with pluralist beliefs make no distinction between faith systems,
viewing each one as valid within a particular culture. Pluralists and
inclusivists may borrow from more than one faith system for their own
religious practice. However, it should be noted that in many areas different
faith systems are integrated into one; this does not fit the definition of
pluralism. For example, in many tribal areas of Indonesia natives practice a
mixture of Islam, tribal gods, and worship of Adam and Eve.
Role of charismatic figures
Many religions have been deeply influenced by charismatic leaders, such as
Jesus Christ, Adi Sankara, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekanada, Sai
Baba, Muhammad, Gautama Buddha, etc. These leaders may be the central
teacher in the religion, like Muhammad, Jesus or Gautama. Or they might be
reformers or prominent persons.
The Founders of some of the major world religions include Abraham and Moses
for Judaism, Zoroaster for Zoroastrianism, Gautama Buddha for Buddhism,
Jesus Christ for Christianity, Muhammad for Islám, and Bahá'u'lláh for the
Origin of religion
The origin of religion in general and for particular religions is usually
controversial, since religions often claim to have been derived directly
from information supplied by god(s) to chosen human messenger(s). Followers
of the religion (by definition) accept the claims, either literally or in a
metaphorical, or partial fashion. Although followers of a religion, although
they may hold strong belief, may also be interested in looking at possible
human origins for religious events, together with non-religious enquirers.
Religion developed before writing
Religion was practiced long before the invention of writing, as paintings
and pottery shows in images. Religion may well have originated in stories
created to account for the great questions of life, for comfort, to keep
records of a people's history, and for entertainment. It is possible that
atheists (those who do not believe in any deities) or agnostics (those who
believe we cannot know if there are any deities) always existed as well, but
they would have lacked alternative explanations for natural phenomena.
Genetic propensities toward religion
Recent advances in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology suggest that
religion might have its origins in the workings of the brain itself. Pascal
Boyer's book, Religion Explained, attempts to explain religion through
One does well to remember, however, that the physical sciences have
self-described limits -- neuropsychology can tell us "where" religion is
perceived in the human brain, and cognitive psychology can tell us "how",
but there is no test or experiment to discover "why" or if there really is a
Physical evidence for origins of religion
Evidence of very early human prehistory is scanty and it is best not to over
interpret archaeological remains: for example bones painted with red ochre
may signify a color symbolizing life rather than a belief in an afterlife.
And covering the dead person's body with valuable possessions may derive
from the belief that using the dead person's possessions will bring bad
luck. For a more contemporary example, imagine a future archaeologist
digging through the remains of a Star Wars fan's bedroom and consider the
possible erroneous interpretations of such a find.
Evidence from burial practices
Nevertheless, evidence for early civilizations' religious ideas can be found
similarly in elaborate burial practices in which valuable objects were left
with the deceased, intended for use in an afterlife or to appease the gods.
This custom has clearer motives as it is usually accompanied by tomb
paintings showing a belief of afterlife. It reached a spectacular form with
the creation of the pyramids of Giza and the other great tombs of ancient
Egypt; the Sumerian royal burials, and other prehistoric (pre-written
records) monument builders.
Documentation of modern religions' beginnings
Religions created in modern times are often reasonably well documented (for
example, Scientology.) Minor religions have been called cults and still are,
while many scholars use the term New Religious Movement (NRM). Reasons for
the creation of religions are many, including a range from idealism to a
desire to obtain wealth and power over others; the two may combine in
interesting ways. It's easy to speculate that similar forces were at work in
the creation of earlier religions. Once a religious community increases in
size and gains widespread recognition, it has to negotiate with the
governing social group, the State. At this point material or political
ambitions are more likely to be dominant.
Modern benefits from religion
Religions provide great numbers and scale of visionary inspirations for
compassion, practical charity and moral restraint.
Abram Maslow's research after World War II showed that Holocaust survivors
tended to be those who held strong religious beliefs (not necessarily temple
attendance etc). Humanistic Psychology went on to investigate how religious
or spiritual identity links with longer lifespan and better health. Humans
may particularly need religious ideas because they serve various emotional
needs such as the need to feel loved, the need to belong to homogenous
groups, the need for understandable explanations or the need for justice.
Maslow's results have not proved repeatable in other contexts. The critical
factors may involve sense of purpose, extreme beliefs in general, or other
factors sometimes correlated with religious belief, and/or may be specific
to Holocaust survivors. The very fact that religion was the primary selector
for research subjects may have introduced a bias.
Religion vs. Mythology
Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of ancient Greece, ancient
Rome, the Vikings, etc., are often studied under the heading of mythology.
Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development to
industrial conditions, are similarly observed by the anthropology of
religion. Mythology can be a term used pejoratively by religious and
non-religious people both (the religious person will in this case define
another religion's stories as mythology). Here myths are treated as
fantasies, or "mere" stories. But the study of religions, and the
investigation of myths by psychology, not to mention how some myths turn out
to have historical verification, has brought about a mixed, almost
contradictory use of the term: some NRMs (New Religious Movements) such as
Neopaganism actively research and use myths from older religions, both those
that still exist and those that have disappeared. Joseph Campbell, in The
Power of Myth, held that myth was a universal human trait, and necessary to
well-being. There is no essential difference between the myths of extinct
religions and those of extant religions.
A few religious critics view the elevation of philosophy of science and
"mathematical fetishism" as creating a mythology, and call that an error,
scientism. These are usually inseparable from debates about ethics in science.
Monotheism vs. Polytheism
The dominance of monotheism among influential Western scholars of religion,
and theologians, proposed a division into monotheistic and polytheistic
faiths. The classification fails with a religion that places minute emphasis
on gods but more importance on mankind's growing ability to understand the
ineffable (like Theravada Buddhism). Christianity claims to be monotheistic,
although some writers find this idea problematic since Christian doctrine
has developed a notion of God as one essence in three persons (Father, Son
and Holy Spirit), explained in the doctrine of the Trinity. The monotheism
of Islam and Judaism is much more clear cut, although very early sources for
both Allah and Yahweh show signs of henotheistic or polytheistic origins or
forerunners, which do not at all deny their sole Deity status once the
religion became established. Neopaganism (including Wicca and Asatru), a
group of religions generally considered to be polytheistic, is also
difficult to classify neatly. While adherents worship a diverse pantheon of
gods and goddesses, a great many of them believe those personalities to be
facets of a single Divine entity. The Japanese national religion, Shinto, is
often said to be polytheistic, though it would be more accurate to
characterise it as a pantheistic religion which tolerates worship of any and
all individuated deities.
Some religions have secondary deities, which is straightforward in Hinduism,
but less so for those Christians who venerate Mary as Theotokos (Mother of
God). Mary has often attracted such a massive devotion by the faithful that
the Church has been careful to clearly define her status: Christians in the
Catholic and Orthodox traditions are instructed that she is to be venerated
but not worshipped, and that Jesus Christ is eternally begotten of the
Father, and the Creator of his strictly human mother. (see also: Third
Ecumenical Council, Seventh Ecumenical Council.) Many mystics have asserted
the female aspect of Deity but apart from Hinduism this has not been
regarded as mainstream by major world religions for several centuries.
Goddess is routinely recognised in Hindu Mahadevi, Mahayana Buddhism,
Western Paganism and Goddess Spirituality.
Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and most Hinduisms also recognize the
existence of lesser spiritual beings: angels and demons. These may play a
more or less elaborate role, but they are not worshipped as gods. In
Christian Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary and the saints have
especially important roles as intercessors and personal guardians. They are
venerated and asked for prayers because their exemplary lives suggest that
they are in the presence of God in Heaven. Mahayana Buddhism's lesser
deities embody psychological forces, whether as guides, examples or
antagonists with whom to learn power and skill. The division between Deity,
deity, minor deity, angel, demon, nature spirit, ancestor or hero, is not
clear cut, but developed pragmatically.
Deities both great and lesser are part of practices like transcendental
psychology (which looks at the psychology of the spiritual) and therapies
like Jungianism. Jung found an underworld of mythological drama in the
backstage areas of the mind: in particular, he proposed that our ideas and
feelings are shaped by spiritual archetypes, recurring models such as God,
the Old Man, or the Mother which have become a part of our collective
unconscious through ages of evolution. Gaia philosophy is based on one such
image, that of the Earth Mother, called Gaia in Ancient Greece.
The New Age Movement, a late 20th century culture of eclectic beliefs in
millennial change, healing traditions, alternative realities, also draws on
these mythological images. However, many of these images and rituals are
drawn from traditional religions, e.g. Hindu, Sufi, Buddhism or Gnostic.
But it is important to distinguish a spiritual psychology that explores a
map of the self, which goes so deep and far that it recognises divine
shapes, from a religion or spirituality that explores a relationship between
human self and an Other, the divine.
The distinction asks whether there is dialogue between two or more with
genuine voice and influence coming from the other (Martin Buber's I and
Thou), or whether there is a journey in which the self encounters profound
symbolic experiences. As the opening definition tells us, religion is about linking.
An important view is that one experiences the divine Other only through the
specific Other, one's neighbor or enemy (which most religions hold are the
same). In some religions, e.g. Islam, this is of primary importance.
The Parliament of World Religions conducts a search for what they call a
Global Ethic which would capture the essence of what religions agree on - a
consensus. This is one of many ecumenical movements that seek to reconcile
religions using consensus decision making and other principles shared by
humanism. This is not always easy. Modern Islamic philosophy for instance
includes both militant radical Islamist and New-Age-like trends to renew the
focus on khalifa, "stewardship", and global social justice.