What Is Religion?

In the past, scholars have defined religion primarily as a belief in a supreme deity. But since then, we have learned a lot more about the diversity of human religious beliefs and practices. So we can now include in a definition of religion practices that, although they lack the belief in a supreme deity, are nonetheless related to a world view that is at least partially based on supernatural powers and/or cosmological orders. These would be the practices of peoples such as ancient Egyptians and Navajo who pray to their gods, Hindus who practice Yoga to connect with their gods, Buddhists who believe in Bodhisattvas, and the Malagasy who worship spirits of their dead.

A more modern approach, pioneered by Ninian Smart and later taken up by others, has been to treat the concept of religion as a multidimensional complex rather than a single dimension. A number of social historians have taken up this approach, including Edward Tylor, who proposes that the minimum definition of religion includes belief in spiritual beings and thus is substantive, and Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values and orient their life.

Some anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures) think that early humans created religion out of their desire to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as the weather or pregnancy and birth, by pleading with gods and goddesses for help. Other anthropologists, on the other hand, think that religion evolved out of a biological need to cope with mortality and provide meaning for life after death.

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