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A ''religion'' is defined as the social expression of attitudes, beliefs, and practices related to the supernatural or the sacred. Religion also functions in many human communities as a means by which the origin of the world around them, and such mysteries as life, death, and their meaning are explained. However, what actually constitutes a religion is subject to much dispute in the fields of Theology, Sociology, Anthropology, and among ordinary people.


__What do religions have in common?__

The word ''religion'' derives from the Latin word ''ligare'', meaning ''to join'', ''to link'' or to bind. The prefix ''re''- means ''to do again'', so ''religion'' can be literally translated as re-linking or re-joining. Thus ''religion'' is classically understood 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, also requiring or binding adherents to follow 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. It therefore depends on the individual faith system whether or not the Philosophy of Religion is regarded as being part of metaphysics.

Two of the identifying features of most 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 people contend that all religions are to some degree both unempirical (see Empiricism) 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 use unimpeachable logic to defend ontological and moral concepts.

__Religious practices__

Practices based upon religious beliefs typically include:
* Prayer
* 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 or texts 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 Dharmashastras of Hinduism or 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 sacred texts 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 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.

__Comparing religion to spirituality__

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. 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 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, was a natural outgrowth of the Vedic, Tantric, and Buddhist traditions, and 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 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 Church, deepening knowledge of Scripture, 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 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. The Christian church was not founded by Jesus, nor did Jesus instruct his followers to form a religion. The organization, structures and denominations of Christianity came into being after his death.

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 burning of heretics in history, was not at all what God intended us to do. 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.

__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 influence 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.

''Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.'' Karl Marx

__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 misguided.

* ''Self-promotion'': Some individuals place themselves in positions of power and privilege through promoting specific 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, cases of abuse by the clergy of several religions reduces public confidence in the essential message.

* ''Promoting ignorance'': Many atheists and agnostics see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as a form of brainwashing or social conditioning. Some further concur 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. As a result, some people reject the concept of religion in its entirety, and turn their backs on the more ordinary and acceptable belief in a God or divine intelligence.

* ''Superficial objections'': 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.

* ''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. On the other hand, many non-religious people reject the idea that love, compassion, forgiveness, grace and other qualities belong only to religion, and argue that religion is not necessary to embrace and experience these qualities.

* ''Religion Lite'': Many 'modern' religions require so little of their followers, so little sacrifice, that the followers in turn gain minimally from their membership therein. A religion that does not require significant sacrifice from its practitioners does not have the ability to really make a difference in their lives. Therefore, people come away from experiences with these religions with the feeling that the need hasn't been filled because it actually hasn't. This corresponds with the natural law that you get out of something what you put into it.

Many of these causes for hostility are a reaction to inevitably worldly events and people; religious believers are sad to see that people are turned away from the churches' perspective on spiritual and eternal dimension by concerns which are based on very limited and transitory features.

However, more and more people are engaging in far-ranging explorations and finding profound spiritual satisfaction outside of organized churches. This is a demographic group whose numbers are growing and whose future impact cannot be predicted. See Emergent religion and Religion today sections of this article.

__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, Memetics and Evolutionary Psychology, new breakthroughs offer a hope of explaining religion in scientific terms. Although some would argue that the scientific point of view is simply one more belief system, and therefore no more valid than a religious world view.

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 social group.

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.

And then there are believers, including a fast growing number of today's scientists, who point to actual real-world phenomena that correlate with those beliefs. A growing number of physicists, biologists, and more, for example, are pointing to the basic set of universal constants that seem coordinated in special ways, and have articulated this phenomenon in the phrase ''anthropic principle''.

__How do religions differ?__

Western religions typically focus on a relationship and worship between the person and their higher deity. Eastern religions typically focus on a process of living life for the next life or the here after. However, there exists a spectrum of religions and practices between the dichotomy of relationship and process.

While some practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths or ''people of the Book'' (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) each worship one all-powerful God, each of these religions has different beliefs. Many followers of each of these three religions openly oppose the idea that the three views point to the same God, pointing out the many areas of disagreement as to God's nature, character, deeds and overall plan with humanity.

Jews believe that their deity is the one and only God, who revealed his Torah (teachings) to Moses and other sages of Israel.

Christians accept this same God, but believe that the Christ has already appeared in the form of Jesus, in accordance to the Jewish Scriptures (such as in the books of Daniel and Isaiah). 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. The central schism between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches is that in the latter good deeds cannot create or maintain a relationship with God. Virtuous deeds are supposed to simply flow from pure faith and a relationship with God through entering that relationship with Jesus.

Muslims, like the Jews, differ with the Christians as to the divinity 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. The Five Pillars of Islam are the five required deeds or rituals needed to relate to the holy God. Jews and Christians often perceive the Muslim God as being very different than their own in terms of nature and character, although that is hotly debated.

Although there is a tendency, in the West especially, to speak about religion in terms of God not all religions believe in a creator god. For example, in Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, the primary focus of worship is directed towards an undefined state of being called Nirvana.

__Questions that religions address__

Religions are systems of belief which typically answer questions about the following concerns:
*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, Nirvana, Purgatory or Hell,
*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 or It wants from us,
*our relationships with the divine, the sacred, ancestors, other believers, nonbelievers, and the natural world around us; that is, how to behave properly in relation to others.

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 concerns.

__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 sometimes have no prophetic founder, although they may have had an early ''champion'' or crafter of that religious viewpoint. 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 defined by the veneration or worship of one and only one 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 Spirit 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 mythology 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 religions, alternatively termed spiritual philosophy, emphasize 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.

*Communism is one example of a political philosophy with many of the characteristics of a religion. Those include sacred texts, rituals, and the near-deification of certain leaders. Its official policy happened to be Atheism, however, indicating that neither religion nor the absence of it is a reliable indicator of character.

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 differing 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 religious pluralism 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, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, 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), Bahá'u'lláh (Bahá'í), and Joseph Smith (Mormonism).

__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.

Institutional religion came into being about 4000 years ago, coincident with the invention of writing. It is likely that the advent of writing, which was not universally understood, was deliberately kept as the exclusive preserve of the priestly classes, who used it to communicate what they were able to claim, due to the ignorance of the masses, were the words of God, and thereby preserve their power and privilege.

__Religion developed before writing__

Archeologists and historians debate whether religion was practised before the invention of writing. 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 also possible that atheists (those who hold to the tenets of Scientific Materialism and do not believe in any deities) or agnostics (those who believe we cannot know if there are any deities) always existed as well. It is mainly the experience of doubt about the so-called truths of religion by believers and non-believers alike that led to the development of Science in order to provide more logical, less faith-based explanations of natural phenomena.

__Physical evidence for origins of religion__

Early human remains, art, and artifacts leave us clues as to their beliefs and practices, though it is best not to over interpret these archaeological remains. Early human prehistory has scattered physical evidence and no writings: for example bones painted with red ochre may signify a color symbolizing life rather than a belief in an Afterlife , 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. 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.

Later religious viewpoints, such as Christianity and Islam, point to a myriad of archeological evidence (i.e. comparisons between archeological findings and the cities and people mentioned in their holy books) and manuscripts of early writings of their religion. When archaeology was still in its early stages as a scientific discipline in the 19th century, a procession of them went about attempting to find evidence contrary to the Bible, for example, and became instead forceful witnesses to its accuracy. These religious books are sometimes used to interpret archeological finds but are still considered by many to be an unreliable guide.

For example, the ''Jesus ossuary'' was precisely dated by this method before it was determined to be a fake by some, though this is still debated.

__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, and still are, called cults , 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.

__Modern benefits from religion__

Religions provide great numbers and scale of visionary inspirations for compassion, practical charity and moral restraint.

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). 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.

Christianity is noted for the founding of many major universities, the creation of hospitals, the giving of food and medical supplies, and the creation of orphanages and schools, to name a few. Other religions and secularists have performed equivalent work, within the contexts of their cultures and in proportion to their numbers and wealth.

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 Cognitive Psychology.

__Religion vs. mythology__

Ancient Polytheistic religions, such as those of Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Norse mythology, etc., are often studied under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or culture 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. 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 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, naming these practices 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 the individual's ability to understand the ineffable (like Buddhism which expresses this as ''seeing things as they really are''). 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 Holy Trinity. The monotheism of Islam and Judaism is much more clear cut, although very early sources for 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 Deity.


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