Religion is commonly defined as belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the practices and institutions associated with such belief.
Fishers of men; Oil on panel by Adriaen van de Venne, 1614
The nature and content of religion
Beyond the above, very broad definition of religion, there are a variety of uses and meanings for the word, "religion." Some of the approaches are as follows:
- One definition, sometimes called the "Function-based Approach," defines religion as any set of beliefs and practices that have the function of addressing the fundamental questions of human identity, ethics, death and the existence of the Divine (if any). This broad definition encompasses all systems of belief, including those that deny the existence of any god, those that affirm the existence of one God, those that affirm the existence of many gods, and those that pass on the question for lack of proof.
- A second definition, sometimes called the "Form-based Approach," defines religion as any set of beliefs which makes claims that lie beyond the realm of scientific observation, according to some authority or personal experience with the Divine. This narrower definition places "religion" in contradistinction with Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Atheism, and Agnosticism, which do not appeal to authority or personal experience in coming to their beliefs, but instead appeal to their interpretation of Science.
- A third definition, sometimes called the "Physical evidence approach," defines religion as the beliefs about cause and effect that Occam's Razor would remove as recognizing causes that are more than what is both true and sufficient to explain the physical evidence. By this definition then, non-religion is any set of beliefs that admits no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearance.
- A fourth definition, sometimes called the "Organizational Approach," defines religion as the formal institutions, creeds, organizations, practices, and rules of conduct, of all major, institutionalized religions. This definition places "religion" in contradistinction to "spirituality," and therefore does not include the claims "spirituality" makes to actual contact, service, or worship of the Divine. In this definition, however, religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive: a religious person may be spiritual or unspiritual, and a spiritual person may be religious or non-religious. By analogy, "religion" is the coal, wood, or gasoline, while "spirituality" is the fire.
For a more complete discussion, see Approaches to distinguishing religion from non-religion
Questions that religions address
Religions are systems of belief which typically answer questions about the following concerns:
- the existence (or non-existence) and nature of Deity (or Deities) (cf God), the divine, the sacred and the supernatural;
- the appropriate means and methods for relating to the divine, the sacred, other people, and the natural world around us;
- a sense of identity in relation to the divine and other people;
- our purpose in life, and appropriate goals in this life;
- an ethical framework, including a definition of activities which are "good" and "bad";
- possible other states of being like heaven, nirvana, purgatory or hell, and how to prepare for them;
Generally, the different religions and the non-religious all have different answers for the above concerns, and many religions provide a range of answers to each question.
Practices based upon religious beliefs typically include:
- Regular assembly with other believers
- 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.
Contrasts among religions
Religions diverge widely with regard in the answers they provide to the questions listed above, and the practices of the religious faithful. For example:
Number of gods
- Monotheistic religions assert that there is one God, distinct and separate from Nature as we understand it. Examples include Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Vaishnavism, Shaivism and the Bahá'í Faith.
- Trinitarian religions assert that there is one God with three persons. Examples include the majority of Christian denominations, with the exceptions of Oneness Pentecostals;
- Henotheistic religions assert that there are many gods and/or deities of varying attributes, but One God is ultimately supreme. Examples include the strains of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism (especially Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Islam that acknowledge angels, demons, devas or other gods of whom the One God is greatest, as well as many animistic traditions, particularly in Africa;
The syllable Aum
or ॐ is the primordial mantra
- Polytheistic religions such as Greco-Roman religion assert that there are many Gods;
- Pantheistic or natural religions see everything in nature an aspect of a spiritual plane. Examples include (to various degrees): Shintoism and several animistic traditions.
- Non-theistic religions (such as Buddhism) make no claim as to the existence or non-existence of God;
- Atheistic religions (such as Jainism and Secular Humanism) do not believe in a god, gods or goddesses.;
Gender of God or gods
- Some religious individuals describe God as being without gender, and embodying both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine attributes;
- Some religious individuals describe God as being without gender, but having many traditionally masculine characteristics.
- Other religious individuals describe God as being without gender, but having many traditionally feminine characteristics.
- Other religions describe God or the gods as being tangibly masculine or feminine. Examples include traditional animism and mythological religions.
Sources of authority
- Sacred Texts provide authority to believers who regard the text as authoritative, divinely inspired, and/or inerrant. Examples include the Quran, the Vedas, and the Bible;
- Prophets provide authority to believers who regard the prophet as either having either spectacular personal insight, or direct personal communication with the Divine. Examples include Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and Muhammed;
- Science and Reason provide authority to believers who regard science and reason as providing answers to many of the fundamental questions asked and answered by religion. Examples of include Secular Humanism, and Atheism;
- Tradition provides authority to believers who regard the customs of their ancestors to be particularly important and a source of Divine Truth; examples include Shamanism and some aspects of Shintoism;
- Personal Experience provides authority to believers who believe they have had personal contact with Deity or Deities, or some other event of particular religious significance to them.
- Centralized religions develop a highly structured organization intended to develop and assure doctrinal purity, and aid believers in their efforts to life by that faith. Examples include Roman Catholicism, early Islam, and Hassidic Judaism;
- Decentralized religions develop independent of any centralizing force, and therefore demonstrate a great deal of variety with regard to belief and practice. Examples include Hinduism, the mythologies of ancient Greece and Egypt, and modern Pagan revivals such as Wicca or Asatru (see also Neopaganism).
- Behavior-based religions emphasize the importance of a believer participating in certain customs, rituals, and behaviors. Examples include Hassidic Judaism, and many animistic traditions;
- Spiritual Philosophy religions emphasize extensive practical teachings for achieving human happiness or equanimity in the natural world with a lesser focus on the supernatural. Examples: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Others like Hinduism emphasize such beliefs but still do believe in a personal, supreme God which can be expressed in a variety of ways.
- Relationship-based religions emphasize the maintenance of a proper relationship with the Divine, either by Personal Relationship (in the case of Evangelical Christianity), by obedience and submission to God's Will (in the case of Islam), or repentance and forgiveness for sin (in the case of traditional Christianity).
- Ideologically-based religions emphasize the achievement of some earthly ideological goal. Some, such as Communism, developed the traditionally "religious" attributes of "sacred" texts, rituals, and the near-deification of certain leaders.
(It should be noted that, to one degree or another, most religions draw from all types of ethics; however, most traditionally emphasize one over the others)
- Hinduism asserts that humans are continually reborn, until they reach Moksha, a state of union with God or Saguna Brahman expressed as Vishnu or Shiva or as what followers of the Advaita school believe, union with the Impersonal Absolute and that one's good or evil behavior in this life determines the course of one's next life; accordingly, Hinduism does not believe in eternal damnation as God gives us many chances through subsequent reincarnations until we reach moksha. However, many Hindus believe there is a purgatory-like state analogous to Christianity where Yama, the Hindu deva, or Lord of Death, punishes humans before they reincarnate again.
- Theravada Buddhism asserts that a person's Kamma is continually reborn until they attain Nirvana, and that rebirth is undesirable; Mahayana Buddhism is more in line with Hinduism with regard to certain beliefs on reincarnation. However, Buddhism's state of nirvana is not analogous to the Hindu concept of Moksha as Nirvana is a state of non-being or voidness and does not focus on the concept of a personal, Supreme Being that is allowed in Advaita and is mandated in the strict theistic schools such as that of Ramanuja and Madhva.
- Christianity and Islam posit a Heaven and Hell, and God as judge to decide our eternal fate. Beyond that common ground, however, belief varies widely within the religions.
- Catholicism asserts that individuals are saved by declaring faith in God, but are still subject to punishment for unrepented sin at death, which is purified in purgatory;
- Traditional Protestantism asserts that individuals are saved purely by declaring their belief in the saving power of Jesus' death and resurrection;
- Some other Christians, such as C.S. Lewis, believe that individuals choose their own heaven or hell: if a person chooses to live in a self-created "Hell on Earth," they continue to choose that after death, and God ultimately gives them what they wish: distance from God and Joy. On the othe hand, people that seek "Heaven on Earth" continue to seek Heaven after death, and God gives them what they desire: nearness of God, and Joy. See, for example, "The Great Divorce," by C.S. Lewis.
- Under most traditional Islamic belief, God judges us on the basis of our adherence to the five pillars of Islam, including acknowledgement of God, Muhammed, and living according to God's laws of Justice, Faith, and Mercy, and rewards us according to our acts on Earth.
- Judaism makes no particular claims regarding the afterlife.
Approaches to Relating to the beliefs of others
Adherents of particular religions deal with the differing doctrines and practices espoused by other religions in a variety ways. All strains of thought appear in different segments of all major world religions.
People with exclusivist beliefs typically explain other religions as either in error, or as corruptions or counterfeits of the true faith. Examples include:
- Christians believe Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth and the life. Noone comes to the Father but through me." John 14:6.
- The Quran states: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” Qur'an 5:51.
- Jews believe God said to Israel through Moses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exclusivist views are more completely explored in chosen people.
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. Examples include:
- From Hinduism:
- A well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism claims that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously."
- Krishna, incarnation of Vishnu, the supreme God in Hinduism, said in the Gita: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22)
- The other quote in Gita states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23)
- From Christianity:
- Jesus Christ said, "He who is not against me is for me." Mark 9:40.
- Jesus Christ said, "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Luke 12:10.
- An aphorism common in some Christian circles: "All Truth is God's Truth."
- From Islam:
- The Quran states: “Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way - except in the case of those of them who do wrong - saying, 'We have faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him.'”(Holy Quran, Surat al-'Ankabut; 29:46)
People with pluralist beliefs make no distinction between faith systems, viewing each one as valid within a particular culture. Examples include:
- The Quran, revealed through Muhammed, states, "Those with Faith, those who are Jews, and the Christians and Sabaeans, all who have Faith in Allah and the Last Day and act rightly, will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow." (Quran, Surat al-Baqara; 2:62)
- The Christian writer Paul wrote, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” Romans 2:6-15.
People with syncretistic views blend the views of a variety of different religions or traditional beliefs into a unique fusion which suits their particular experience and context.
Syncretism is explored more fully in the article, Syncretism.
Religion in relation to other closely related topics
Religion and spirituality
It is common to distinguish the concept of "religion" from the concept of "spirituality."
Individuals who ascribe to this distiction see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven) without being bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a large-scale disillusionment with organized religion that is occurring in much of the Western world (see Religion in Modernity), and a movement towards a more "modern"—more tolerant, and more intuitive—form of religion.
Many members of organized religion, of course, see no significant difference between the two terms, because they see spirituality at the heart of their religion, and see the church organization as a means of preserving that spirituality. Many of them associate themselves with an organized religion because they see the religious community as a means of maintaining and strengthening their Faith in fellowship with other believers. They see amorphous "spirituality" movements as "religions of convenience," in which individuals can choose whatever beliefs make them feel comfortable at the time, without being bound to any external standard of accountability.
Finally, it should be noted that many individuals, while still associating themselves with an organized religion, see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and the spiritual dimension. They note that people may take part in organized religion purely for mundane reasons, for example, gaining security from such things as regular attendance at churches or temples, or the social comfort of fervently agreeing with other believers; they note that this sometimes is done without a corresponding spiritual dimension. They then conclude that such behavior is "religious" without being "spiritual." Further, some aspects of religion (for example, the Catholic Inquisition or Islamic Terrorism), are seen as completely contrary to the teachings of the religions' founders, who many believe taught tolerance and love. In support of this belief that religions may "lose their way," many cite things such as Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees, who represented organized religion in his context.
As a result, many who consider themselves deeply involved with the Divine may have come to reject much of the recognised aspects of established religion, in an effort to free themselves of the mundane trappings or perceived corruption of "religion."
Religion and science
Generally speaking, religion and science use different methods in their effort to ascertain Truth. Religious methods are generally subjective, appealing to personal intuition or experience, or the authority of a perceived prophet or sacred text. Scientific methods are generally objective, appealing only to observable and verifiable phenomena.
Similarly, there are two types of questions which religion and science attempt to answer: questions of observable and verifiable phenomena (such as the laws of physics, or human moral codes), and questions of unobservable phenomena and value judgments (such as how the laws of physics came to be, and what is "good" and "bad").
People apply the two methods to the two categories of questions in a variety of ways.
- Some apply religious methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable; for example, Theravaada Buddhists assert from the authority of the Buddha that the universe and the self are illusions and non-existent, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
- Some apply religious methods to most questions, and apply scientific methods to a few; for example, up to the mid-16th Century most clergy and natural philosophers asserted, from purported Biblical authority, that the Earth was the center of the universe and subject to certain natural laws, despite physical evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and subject to radically different laws.
- Some apply religious methods only to questions of the unobservable and values, and apply scientific methods only to questions of the observable and verifiable; for instance, those that note the empirical evidence of evolution today, but assert from a religious basis that a supernatural God created the Universe and all the laws and phenomena therein.
- Some apply scientific methods to most questions, and apply religious methods to a few; for example, many atheists assert that there is no God for lack of empirical evidence, but still assert that there are fundamental moral laws and values that man ought to follow, a priori.
- Some apply scientific methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable; for example, Nazis, Communists, Nihilists, and Materialists, who assert that Science necessitat certain philosophical, unobservable, unverifiable, and value-laden conclusions of a strongly religious nature, such as the superiority of certain races, the inevitability of proletarian rule, or the meaninglessness of life.
Religion and myth
The word "myth" has two meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
- a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
- a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
Myth as "mere story"
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, by defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology. Here myths are treated as fantasies, or "mere" stories.
Myth as defining and explaining belief
The term myth in sociology, however has a non-pejorative meaning, defined as stories that are important for the group and not necessarily untrue. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin, as well as being ostensibly historical), or the theory of evolution (which, to Secular Humanists, illustrates the course of history, and inspires them to strive to further the evolution of Mankind, as well as being ostensibly scientific). Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, held that myth was a universal human trait, and necessary to well-being. By this definition, therefore, there is no essential difference between the myths of extinct religions, those of extant religions, and those of ostensibly "non-religious" people.
Religion and Occam's Razor
In its simplest form, Occam's Razor states that one should not take more assumptions than needed. When multiple explanations are available for a phenomenon, the simplest version is preferred.
Some, such as Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics assert that Occam's Razor makes religious belief unreasonable, because religion requires an individual to make many more assumptions regarding causes in the natural world than Atheistic and Naturalistic explanations require. For instance, some religious beliefs require the believer to assume that an invisible God created the universe, is concerned with our moral behavior for some reason, yet does not reveal himself, and will judge us after death for decisions we made in relative ignorance, sending us to either an assumed Heaven or an assumed Hell. Atheists conclude that such belief requires a myriad of assumptions, that naturalistic explanations require significantly fewer assumptions, and that the religious beliefs are therefore less reasonable than naturalistic ones.
Others (such as William of Occam himself, who was a Christian and Franciscan friar), assert that Occam's Razor makes religious belief reasonable. Some, for instance, note the empirical phenomena of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which indicate that over time, the universe passes from greater to lesser levels of organization. They further note that the only observable instances of increased organization are caused by life (in the context of evolution) or by persons (in the context of human creative efforts to alter and organize our universe). They then assert that naturalistic explanations alone are insufficient to explain Order in the universe, because they provide no mechanism by which order may arise from disorder, other than Persons. They conclude that the most reasonable explanation for the origin of Order in the universe is a Person of one form or another, who provided the creative impetus that brought about the remarkable order and structure evident in the universe.
Others assert that Occam's Razor is not a fair test for reasonable belief in all cases, because it is dependent on the available amount of evidence. They note that the history of science is the history of simple and intuitive explanations giving way to more complex and less intuitive ones. They note that belief in a flat Earth gave way to belief in a round Earth; that belief in strict Newtonian physics gave way to the much more complex Einsteinian relativity; and that belief in the doctrine of humors gave way to modern medicine. They note that Occam's razor was the means by which many nay-sayers of these scientific revolutions held back scientific discovery, because new theories required significantly more evidence and assumptions than traditional theory, and were therefore discouraged by many. They conclude that since the universe is often much more complex than our evidence allows for at any one time, one ought not rule out significantly more complex interpretations, simply because they require more assumptions than current theory. One ought instead to devote oneself to the investigation of all hypotheses, both religious and non-religious, allowing one's beliefs to change naturally with one's experience.
Approaches to the study of individual religions
Methods of studying religion subjectively (in relation to one's own beliefs)
These include efforts to determine the meaning and application of "sacred" texts and beliefs in the context of the student's personal worldview. This generally takes one of three forms:
- one's own -- efforts by believers to ascertain the meaning of their own sacred text, and to conform their thoughts and actions to the principles enunciated in the text. For most believers, this involves a lifetime process of study, analysis, and practice. Some faiths, such as Hassidic Judaism, emphasize adherence to a set of rules and rituals. Other faiths, such as Christianity, emphasize the internalization and application of a set of abstract principles, such as Love, Justice, or Faith. Some believers interpret their scriptures literally, and apply the text exactly it is written. Other believers try to interpret scripture through its context, to derive abstract principles which they may apply more directly to their lives and contexts.
- another's compared to one's own -- efforts by believers of one belief system attempt to describe a different belief system in terms of their own beliefs. One example of this method is in David Strauss's 1835 The Life of Jesus. Strauss's theological approach strikes from the Biblical text the descriptions of angels and miracles which, due to his presupposition that supernatural events do not occur, he does not believe could have occurred. He then concludes that the stories must have been inserted by a "supernaturalist" merely trying to make an important story more convincing. In this course of his argument, Strauss argues that the supernaturalist who inserted the angels into the story of the birth of Christ borrowed the heathen doctrine of angels from the Babylonians who had held the Jews in captivity. That is, the New Testament's fabulous role for angels "is evidently a product of the influence of the Zend religion of the Persians on the Jewish mind." Due to his presumption that supernatural events do not occur, he dismisses the possibility that both cultures came to believe in angels independently, as a result of their own experiences and context.
- another's as defined by itself -- efforts by believers of one belief system to understand the heart and meaning of another faith on its own terms. This very challenging approach to understanding religion presumes that each religion is a self-consistent system whereby a set of beliefs and actions depend upon each other for coherence, and can only be understood in relation to each other. This method requires the student to investigate the philosophical, emotional, religious, and social presuppositions that adherents of another religion develop and apply in their religious life, before applying their own biases, and evaluating the other faith. For instance, an individual who personally does not believe in miracles may attempt to understand why adherents of another religion believe in miracles, and then attempt to understand how the individual's belief in miracles affects their daily life. While the individual may still himself not believe in miracles, he may begin to develop an understanding of why people of other faiths choose to believe in them.
Methods of studying religion objectively (in a scientific and religiously neutral fashion)
There are a variety of methods employed to study religion which seek to be scientifically neutral. One's interpretation of these methods depends on one's approach to the relationship between religion and science, as discussed above.
- Historical, archeological, and literary approaches to religion include attempts to discover the sacred writings at the "dawn of humanity." For example, Max Müller in 1879 launched a project to translate the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism into English in the Sacred Books of the East. Müller's intent was to translate for the first time the "bright" as well as the "dark sides" of non-Christian religions into English.  (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm)
- Critics note that historical, archeological, and literary approaches are scientific insofar as they uncover the facts of ancient religions, and seek to understand and interpret those facts within their context. They assert that the approaches are unscientific, however, insofar as they make value judgments as to which parts of ancient religions are "bright" and which are "dark," because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
- Anthropological approaches include attempts to lay out the principles of native tribes that have had little contact with modern technology as in John Lubbock's The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man.  (http://darwin.lib.cam.ac.uk/perl/nav?pclass=calent&pkey=7286) The anthropological approach to religion asserts that people want an explanation of the fundamental questions of life and ethics. It is believed within an anthropological approach that religion is an early and immature stage in the development of man's tools of "explanation," which is ultimately replaced by science as a more mature and verifiable means of explanation.  (http://www.scicom.lth.se/fmet/myths.html).
- Critics note that the anthropological approach is scientific insofar as it observes that people naturally want explanations, and observes that people ascribe to a variety of explanations, including science and religion. Critics assert that it is unscientific, however, insofar as it makes the value judgment that science is the natural and more mature "successor" to religion, because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
- Sociological approaches include attempts to explain the development of the ideas of morality and law, as in for example, Auguste Comte's Cours de philosophie positive hypothesizing in 1842 that people go through stages of evolution 1) obeying supernatural beings, then 2) manipulating abstract unseen forces, and finally 3) exploring more or less scientifically the social laws and practical governmental structures that work in practice. Within a sociological approach, religion is but the earliest primitive stage of discovering what is morally right and wrong in a civilized society. It is the duty of intelligent men and women everywhere to take responsibility for shaping the society without appealing to a non-existent Divinity to discover empirically what moral concepts actually work in practice, and in the process, the shapers of society must take into account that there is no Divine authority to adjudicate between what are only the opinions of men and women. Comte wrote, in translation, "It can not be necessary to prove to anybody who reads this work that Ideas govern the world, or throw it into chaos; in other words, that all social mechanism rests upon Opinions. The great political and moral crisis that societies are now undergoing is shown by a rigid analysis to arise out of intellectual anarchy." The intellectual anarchy includes the warring oppositions among the world's religions.  (http://www.forum-global.de/soc/bibliot/comte/comtepositivephilosophy.htm)
- Critics note that the sociological approaches are scientific insofar as they note that the three "stages" are empirically observable, but unscientific insofar as it makes the value judgment that any one is superior to another, because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
- Psychological approaches include attempts to explain religious urges as invasions from the unconscious, as in William James's 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience. The experience of God becomes the object of study even though other aspects of God are unknowable. And life after death can be approached empirically through case studies. James cumulates case studies of the experience of "religion" and categorizes the experiences, including Encounter with the divine, Healthy-mindedness, Sick soul, Divided-self and reunification, Conversion, Saintliness, Mysticism, Practice, Philosophy, Sacrifice, and Confession.  (http://www.gutenberg.net/dirs/etext96/varre10.txt)
- Critics note that the psychological approaches are scientific insofar as they document and describe experiences of the divine, but are unscientific insofar as they attempt to refute the proposition that the phenomena also contain a supernatural component, which is, by its very nature, beyond the realm of science.
- Philosophical approaches include attempts to derive rational classifications of the views of the world that religions preach as in Immanuel Kant's 1788 Critique of Practical Reason. Within a philosophical approach, the reason for a religious belief should be more important than the emotional attachment to the belief.  (http://www.gutenberg.net/dirs/etext04/ikcpr10.txt) And in attempting to provide a reasonable basis for morality, Kant proposed the categorical imperative: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."  (http://www.gutenberg.net/dirs/etext04/ikfpm10.txt)
- Critics assert that while philosophical approaches are competent insofar as they logically systematize and compare sets of a priori fundamental values, they are incompetent insofar as they attempt to assert those a priori fundamental values.
- Neuroscientific approaches seek 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 accept counterintuitive statements in the name of religion. In neuroscience, work by scientists such as Ramachandran and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego  (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro01/web2/Eguae.html) suggests evidence of brain circuitry in the temporal lobe associated with intense religious experiences. See also neurotheology, the scientific study of the biological basis of spiritual experience.
- 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. Similarly, Evolutionary psychology approaches consider the survival advantages that religion might have given to a community of hunter-gatherers, such as unifying them within a coherent social group.
- Critics assert that while neuroscientific and evolutionary approaches are scientific insofar as they note the practical advantages religions provide their adherents, it is unscientific insofar as it asserts that people ascribe to religions merely in order to take advantage of those advantages, and exclude the religion's purported attraction: closer experience with Truth and God.
- Cognitive psychological approachs 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.
- Critics assert that cognitive psychological approaches are scientific insofar as they correlate religious experience with unsual brain activity, but unscientific insofar as they make the value judgment that such activity is malfunctioning, because such value judgments are beyond the realm of the observable and verifiable, and unscientific insofar as they assert that religious experience cannot occur within the context of normal or even superior brain-functioning.
For a discussion of the struggle to attain objectivity in the scientific study of religion, see Total Truth (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1581344589/qid=1098733705/sr=2-1/ref=pd_ka_b_2_1/002-1239504-1311215#product-details), by Nancy Pearcey, who argues that some studies performed pursuant to these methods make claims beyond the realm of observable and verifiable phenomena, and are therefore neither scientific nor religiously neutral.
Development of religion
Origin of religion
Each religion has its own interpretation of its origin, based on its scriptural account, and often has an account of the origin of other religions. In addition, Western secular humanism has developed an account of the origin of all religions.
The earliest records of organized religion date from 4000 years ago, concurrent with the earliest extant examples of writing. It is unknown whether organized religion was in practice before this time, because no evidence is available. Adherents to religions assert that their scriptures contain historically accurate accounts of the development of their faiths before this time, such as the Biblical account of Genesis, the Islamic Quaran and Sunna, as well as ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Shinto writings. Many secular humanists assert that religions developed through folklore passed orally through generations, until finally being formalized after the development of writing.
Physical evidence of prehistoric religion
Interpretation of archaeological evidence regarding prehistoric religions is difficult or impossible, due to the scant evidence, and the absence of any cultural or religious reference to aid in interpretting the evidence.
Nevertheless, evidence for early civilizations' religious ideas can be found 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.
Physical evidence of the origins of the major world religions
Interpretation of archaeological evidence has been mixed as to the historical accuracy of the accounts in Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic sacred books, with conflicting claims leading to no clear resolution. See The Bible and history
Documentation of contemporary religions' beginnings
Religions created in modern times are often reasonably well documented (for example, Scientology).
Role of charismatic figures in the development of religions
Many religions have been deeply influenced by charismatic leaders, such as Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Calvin, Joseph Smith, Adi Sankara, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekanada, Sai Baba, Muhammad, Gautama Buddha, etc. These leaders are either the central teacher and founder of the religion (e.g. Muhammad, Jesus, or Gautama) or reformers or prominent persons.
The historical or legendary founders of some of the major world religions include Abraham and Moses (Judaism), Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism), Siddartha Gautama (Buddhism), Jesus Christ (Christianity), Muhammad (Islam), and Bahá'u'lláh (Bahá'í).
Religion in modernity
In the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, the demographics of religion has changed a great deal.
Some historically Christian countries, particularly those in Europe, have experienced a significant decline in religion, shown by declining recruitment for priesthoods and monasteries, fast-diminishing attendance at churches, synagogues, etc. Explanations for this effect include disillusionment with ideology following the ravages of World War II, the materialistic philosophical influence of science, Marxism and Humanism, and a reaction against the exclusivist claims and religious wars waged by many religious groups.
In the United States, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, studies show that Christianity is strong and growing stronger, and many believe those areas to have become the new "heart" of Christianity. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion, and is nearly universal in many states stretching from West Africa to Indonesia, and has grown in world influence in the West. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism remain nearly universal in the Far East, and have greatly influenced spirituality, particularly in the United States. Explanations for the growth of religion in these areas include disillusionment with the perceived failures of secular western ideologies to provide an ethical and moral framework. Believers point to perceived terrors such as Naziism, Communism, Colonialism, Secular Humanism, and Materialism, and the havoc wrecked by such movements around the world. Particularly vehement in this regard are Islamic fundamentalists, who view Western secularism as a serious threat to morality itself. They point to perceived decadence, high rates of divorce, crime, depression, and suicide as evidence of Western social decline, which they believe is caused by the abandonment of Faith by the West.
Modern adherence to religion
Additional reasons for continuing adherence to mainstream religion include the following:
- Moderation: Many religions have approaches that produce practices that place limitations on the behaviour of their adherents. This is seen by many as a positive influence, potentially protecting adherents from the destructive or even fatal excesses to which they might otherwise be susceptible. Many people from many faiths contend that their faith brings them fulfillment, peace, and joy, apart from worldly interests.
- Authority: Most religions are authoritarian in nature, and thus provide their adherents with spiritual and moral role models, who they believe can bring highly positive influences both to adherents and society in general.
- Moral Framework: Most religions see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as essential moral and spiritual formation, whereby individuals are given a proper grounding in ethics: instilling and internalizing moral discipline.
- 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: Most religions postulate a reality which include both the natural and the supernatural. Most adherents of religion consider this to be of critical importance, since it permits belief in unseen and otherwise potentially unknowable aspects of life, including 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.
- Community: Organized religions promote a sense of community. The combination of moral and cultural common ground often results in a variety of social and support networks.
- 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.
- Experience or emotion: For many, the practice of a religion causes an emotional high that gives pleasure to them. Such emotional highs can come from the singing of traditional hymns to the trance-like states found in the practices of the Whirling Dervishes and Yoga, among others. People continue to associate with those practices that give pleasure and, in so far as it is connected with religion, join in religious organizations that provide those practices.
- Rational Analysis: For some of those who profess a religion, their adherence is based on intellectual evaluation that has led them to the conclusion that the teachings of that religion most closely describe reality. Among Christians this basis for belief is often given by those influenced by C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, as well as some who teach young earth Creationism.
- "Spiritual and psychological benefits": Each religion asserts that it is a means by which its adherants may come into closer contact with God, Truth, and Spiritual Power. They all promise to free adherents from spiritual bondage, and bring them into spiritual freedom. It naturally follows that a religion which frees its adherents from deception, sin, and spiritual death will have significant mental health benefits. Abraham 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), suggesting it helped people cope in extreme circumstances. Humanistic psychology went on to investigate how religious or spiritual identity may have correlations with longer lifespan and better health. The study found that humans may particularly need religious ideas to serve various emotional needs such as the need to feel loved, the need to belong to homogenous groups, the need for understandable explanations and the need for a guarantee of ultimate justice. Other factors may involve sense of purpose, sense of identity, sense of contact with the divine. See also Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, detailing his experience with the importance of religion in surviving the Holocaust. Critics assert that the very fact that religion was the primary selector for research subjects may have introduced a bias, and that the fact that all subjects were holocaust survivors may also have had an effect. A study of adolescents found that frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck depression inventory (Wright et al., 1993). (http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/p001078.html)
- "Practical benefits": Religions may sometimes provide breadth and scale for visionary inspirations in compassion, practical charity, and moral restraint. Christianity is noted for the founding of many major universities, the creation of early hospitals, the provision of food and medical supplies to the needy, and the creation of orphanages and schools, amongst other charitable acts. Many other religions (and non-religious organisations and individuals, eg: humanistic Oxfam) have also performed equivalent or similar work.
Modern causes for rejecting religion
As noted above, in some places, such as Europe, 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 people that reject religion often state the faults that they find in mainstream religions; these faults 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/Osho interlude, Reverend Moon of the Unification Church (sometimes called Moonie movement), and other controversial new religious movements pejoratively called cults. Such self-promotion has tended to reduce public confidence in many things that are called "religion." 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.
- Dulling the mind against dealing with reality: Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx developed views that men and women of today have the capability of taking responsibility for their condition where there is no God to assist them. But dealing with reality is sometimes painful. And religion in modern times serves as an "opiate" that gives false hopes and a distorted view of reality with less pain. Perhaps, before the advent of science and the modern understanding of evolution, religion was a valid "stage of growth in human self-consciousness." But today the "opiate" of religion dulls the users' minds, leaves the users in an "opiate"-induced stupor, and makes the users incapable of fixing their "inhuman condition" where the harmful condition includes the addiction of "the masses" to religion.  (http://www.jceps.com/index.php?pageID=article&articleID=22) Hence in 1844, in Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right', Marx said of religion, "It is the opium of the people."  (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)
- Unsuitable moral systems in mainstream religions: Some argue that simplistic absolutism taught by some religions impairs a child's moral capacity to deal with a world of complex and varied temptations in which, in reality, there is no God to inform or assist.
- Unappealing 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.
- Mainstream religions violate "common sense": Some religions postulate a reality which may be seen as stretching credulity and logic, and even some believers may have difficulty accepting particular religious assertions about nature, the supernatural and the afterlife.
- Irrational and unbelievable creeds: 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. This reason has been abetted by an anti-intellectual reaction to "modernism" among many fundamentalist Christians.
- Mainstream religions have a detrimental effect on government: Some religious adherents argue that all human endeavour, including government, is subordinate to "God's Law". Disillusionment with forms of theocratic government, such as practiced in Iran, can lead people to question the legitimacy of any religious beliefs used to justify non-secular government.
- Mainstream religions have forsaken traditional practices and beliefs: Some modern religions have replaced traditional dogma with teachings, moral positions and practices perceived as so "modern" and liberal that followers may not be greatly distinguished from "non-religious" individuals. People with traditional views may lose confidence in the judgement of religious leaders who support such positions, leading them to lose confidence in their beliefs, seek alternative religions or look for organizations still teaching traditional dogma.
- Tensions between proselytizing and secularizing: Increasingly secular beliefs have been steadily on the rise in many nations. An increasing acceptance of a secular worldview, combined with efforts to prevent "religious" beliefs from influencing society and government policy, may have led to a corresponding decline in religious belief, especially of more traditional forms.
- World Religions (http://www.comparative-religion.com/)
- Common Religion (http://www.religiousbook.net/Books/Online_books/Lf/Life_2.html)
- Science and Religion (http://elsaglover.netfirms.com/science_and_religion.htm) by Elsa M. Glover (Ph.D. in Physics)
- What does it mean to be human? (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3971045.stm) BBC article about Flores Man and religion