Religion is subject to much discussion in the fields of theology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Specialists in these fields, as well as ordinary people- both believers and non-believers alike- often disagree about the fundamental nature of religion. Consequently, a general discussion of religion must begin by establishing some common ground between many differing views. This is typically done by answering certain factual questions, such as "What beliefs do different groups of people hold?", "What ritual practices are inspired by these beliefs?", and "What institutions arise as a result of these beliefs and practices?". After answering such questions, it is possible to analyze the resulting body of data, hopefully ariving at the answers to more complex questions, such as "What is the difference between religious and non-religious thought?", "Why do people hold religious beliefs?", and "What is the 'function' of religion?".
Making assumptions about the nature of religion makes it possible to answer additional questions. Thus, some schools of thought base their discussion of religion upon a body of data collected by answering questions of an intangible or controversial nature which have been simplified by some definition or assumption. While such discussions may be fruitful, their conclusions will not be accepted by those who do not also accept the assumption.
An example of this sort of approach, sometimes referred to as "Hebrew thought", bases its discussion of religion on the question "What is the 'function' of religion?", defining the "function" of a belief system as the effect that it has on the actions of individuals who hold those beliefs. Consequently, adherents of this approach regard any belief system which could affect an individual's actions, whether by virtue of its ontological, teleological, moral, or other aspects, as a "religion", including such non-theistic belief systems as Communism, secular humanism, and biological evolution.
The main advantage of this approach is its ability to incorporate seamlessly all of the belief systems that are considered religious, including some of the agnostic forms of Hinduism and Buddhism; according to its advocates, another advantage is its recognition of the fact that the phenomenon usually perceived as conflict between “religion” and “anti-religion” is in fact competition between different fundamentalisms. One difficulty in applying this approach is the fact that many individuals hold multiple belief systems, some of which may be contradictory, and some feigned; consequently, it is often difficult to recognize the effect that any particular belief system has on an individual.
Another disadvantage of this approach is that the truth of whatever insights it may produce is contingent upon highly unconventional assumptions. Consequently, it is possible to recognize that an argument which uses this approach is valid- that its conclusions are true if it is also true that any belief system which could affect the life of an individual is a religion- but to deny that it is sound. This disadvantage is shared by all approaches to the study of religion which stem from questions which require unconventional assumptions to answer. In contrast, discussions which stem from the answers to uncontroversial questions are more easily accepted by people with widely differing views of religion. Consequently, most major thinkers prefer to begin by examining the easily observable aspects of religion; the rest of this article takes this approach.
The word religion probably derives from the Latin word ligare, meaning "to join", "to link" or to bind (although the OED describes this as uncertain). The prefix re- may mean means "back" or "again", or may be an intensifier, so religion could be literally translated, variously, as "binding back", or as re-linking or re-joining, or as "binding strongly". According to the first interpretation, religion is understood by many modern English-speakers to mean the reconnection of human and the alleged 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, and also requiring or binding adherents to follow prescribed religious obligations. Such a system of beliefs can be distinguished from branches of philosophy such as metaphysics which seek to address many of the same questions. In ancient Greece, and in the Judeo-Christian context, especially later on when Christianity became the backdrop of European thinkers, a distinct line was drawn between metaphysics and religion. In the Indian philosophic tradition, however, religion and philosophy were until very recently inseparable, especially in Hinduism and Buddhism. Whether or not the philosophy of religion is regarded as being part of metaphysics is therefore dependent on the faith system considered.
Two identifying features of religions are that to some extent they all (a) require faith and (b) seek to organize and influence the thoughts and actions of their adherents. Because of this, some contend that all religions are to some degree both unempirical 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. On the other hand, schools of thought within many religions strive to embody rationalism (for example, the Nyaya school of Hinduism), and many claim to use unimpeachable logic in defending their dogmatic ontological and moral concepts.
A priesthood or clergy or some other religious functionary to lead and/or help the adherents of the religion
Ceremonies and/or traditions 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 yamas (restraints) of Hinduism or the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, flowing from the beliefs rather than being defined by the beliefs, with the 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 typically gather together to celebrate holy days, to recite or chant scripture, to pray, to worship, and provide 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. This is often a function of the religion in question.
Many Westerners 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 occurring in much of the Western world (see Religion in Modernity). However, proponents of some forms of spirituality may 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 religious traditions.
In the East, however, spirituality is viewed as inseparable from religion. The Indic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism) have always had incorporated into their very framework primary focuses on spirituality. Yoga, for example, is a section of Hindu philosophy and informed the spiritual traditions of both Hindu and Buddhist tantra. It is an extremely detailed, rational, and scientific approach to developing control of mind and body for the purpose of realizing spiritual truths such as uniting with the Divine. It built into the structure of scriptural injunctions and various cultural frameworks a universal understanding of the divinity of man. Thus, we see that spirituality has, in many Eastern religions, no separate existence.
Spirituality, in its Western comprehension, is religion cut loose from some of its bureaucratic trappings. The concept is neutral with regard to tolerance, etc. The same disillusionment often leads in the opposite direction, toward intolerance and violence. Many extreme sects lay claim to a higher spiritual basis. Some of those professing to have attained a higher spiritual plane are actually manipulative and intolerant.
It is possible, and perhaps advised, to keep in mind that there can be a rigid distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of religion and the spiritual dimension. People can gain security from such things as regular attendance at churches or temples, deepening knowledge of religious scriptures, and the social comfort of fervently agreeing with other believers. This sometimes is done without a corresponding spiritual dimension. Some people see this as being distant from God, but very 'religious'. Conversely those who consider themselves deeply involved with the Divine may have come to reject much of the recognised aspects 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 traditional interpretations of the established Judaism, and the perceived hypocrisy of some of its adherents at the time.
People disagree about whether religions have a spiritual or supernatural basis; an example of this is the belief that the modern ceremonies and canons of the Church have almost completely grown away from, or even are contrary to, the presumed original Divine revelation or source. This belief has arisen throughout history. One example is found in pre-Reformation Christianity, when 'Indulgences' (excusal of sin) were for sale, and corruption was endemic in Church appointments. Today, some would hold that extreme religious practices such as some punishments under Sharia law, or the historical burning of heretics, was not at all what God intended. Others find those practices repugnant to the secular ethics of a modern liberal democracy.
Religion in certain faith-systems can therefore draw itself into disrepute through the weaknesses of its practitioners, while spirituality can be independently, but invisibly, strong and flourishing.
In the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, religion, especially Christianity, has seen great reductions in its relative power and membership, and, to a lesser degree, to its reputation. 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-educated classes. Explanations for this effect include the security and comfort afforded by modern technology, the materialistic philosophical influence of science, the development of what some call "secular religions" such as Marxism and Humanism, and the hostility that many feel toward 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. Messianic Judaism has seen a great deal of growth over the last forty years.
As noted above, in the much of the developed world mainstream religions have been on the decline. This decline is apparently in parallel with increased prosperity and social well-being. It appears increasingly common for people to engage in far-ranging explorations, with many finding spiritual satisfaction outside of organized churches. This is a demographic group whose numbers are growing and whose future impact cannot be predicted. The reasons for the decline in mainstream religions are complex and ill-understood, but include the following:
Restrictiveness: Many religions have (or have had in the past) an approach that produces, or produced, practices that are considered by some people to be too restrictive, e.g., regulation of dress, and proscriptions on diet and activities on certain days of the week. Some feel 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.
Self-promotion: Some individuals place themselves in positions of power and privilege through promotion of specific religious views, e.g., the Bhagwan interlude, the Moonie movement, and other cults. Such self-promotion has tended to reduced public confidence in many things with a 'religion' label. Similarly, highly publicized cases of abuse by the clergy of several religions have tended to reduce public confidence in the underlying message.
"Promotion of ignorance": Many atheists and agnostics see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as a form of brainwashing or social conditioning, essentially concurring with the Marxian view that "religion is the opiate of the masses," with addiction to it fostered when people are too young to choose.
"Common sense" objections: Religions postulate a reality which verges on the metaphysical, and even some believers have difficulty accepting religious assertions about the supernatural realm and about the afterlife.
Objections to particular forms of practice: People can form a negative view, based upon the manifestations of religion, e.g., ceremonies which appear pointless and repetitive, arcane clothing, and exclusiveness in membership requirements.
Rationalist or skeptical objections: Some people believe the body of evidence available to humans to be insufficent to justify certain religious beliefs. They may thus disagree with religious interpretations of ethics and human purpose, and theistic views of 'creation'.
Undermines Secular Government: some religious adherents argue that all human endeavour, including government, is subordinate to "God's Law." This undermines the legitimacy of secular government. For this reason, modern democracies demand a separation of church and state.
Insufficient Zeal: Some 'modern' religious lifestyles are so similar to secular ones that the followers are not greatly distinguished from non-religious individuals. People needing strong religious experience may, therefore, turn away from these 'mainstream' religions towards ones with a more traditional outlook.
Cultural factors: Some 'religious' individuals may have substantially secular viewpoint, but retain adherence to religious customs and viewpoints for cultural reasons, such as continuation of traditions and family unity. Judaism, for example, has a particularly strong tradition of 'secular' adherents.
Supernatural connection: Religions postulate a reality which verges on the metaphysical. Most adherents of religion consider this to be of critical importance, since it permits belief in a connection with unseen and otherwise potentially unknowable aspects of life, providing hope of eternal life.
Majesty and tradition: People can form positive views of religion based on the visible manifestations of religion, e.g., ceremonies which appear majestic and reassuringly constant, and ornate cloth.
Fulfillment: Most traditional religions require sacrifice of their followers, but, in turn, the followers may gain much from their membership therein. Thus, they come away from experiences with these religions with the feeling that their needs have been filled.
Science seeks to explore the apparent similarities among religious views dominate in diverse cultures that have had little or no contact, why religion is found in almost every human group, and why humans often seem to accept counterfactual statements in the name of religion. In neuroscience, work by scientists such as Ramachandran and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego suggests evidence of brain circuitry in the temporal lobe associated with 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 Source | Copyright