So, What Exactly is Religion, Anyway?
Theories on the Purpose and Origin on one of our species biggest Social Forces
Religion is a major force is virtually every culture in the world. Even countries that are largely non-religious, like China, still have a long history with religion and a large number of faiths and believers. “Religion” can be an incredibly broad term, as the many religions of the world are extremely diverse. The world’s largest faiths boast billions of followers, and those are broken down further into sects and denominations which may have wildly different interpretations of the core beliefs which lay at the heart of the religion.
Opinions about religion, what it is, what it does, it’s value to society, vary almost as much as religious beliefs themselves do. I’ve identified four main ways of thinking about religion, ranging in terms of generosity to the concept of religious belief. Our perceptions of religion tend to be, unsurprisingly, colored by our experiences with it, and we tend to project our experience outward to create a theory of religious belief that may or may not be accurate. I mention this to say that I have tried to avoid this pitfall, but my perspective is subjective, because I am a subject, so forgive my blindspots and let me know what I missed!
Religion is a Way to Explain Natural Phenomena
This is among the most basic, and in my opinion, the least useful way to explain what religion is. This line of reasoning is often deployed to argue that human beings have moved beyond the need for religion, because science has developed to a point where it adequately explains natural phenomena without requiring us to invoke a God or gods.
Now, it is true that many religions feature stories that explain natural details of the world. These are etiologies, or how-the-leopard-got-his-spots stories. A famous example in the Bible is the Tower of Babel, which explains why different groups of people have different languages. However, most of the Bible, to give just one example, it not etiology of this kind. Where it is etiological, it…