Religion – A System of Belief and Practice
A system of beliefs or practices in which people hope to achieve a better life by obeying certain laws and by earning rewards or avoiding punishment. These rewards or punishments are often achieved through the use of rituals or other acts. Religions are often organized in groups and have leaders who guide followers and administer their institutions. They may also teach specific truths or provide a moral code for living.
Many scholars of religion focus on identifying the common elements in various systems of belief. For example, one approach, taken by Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), defines religion as “a way of life that seeks to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
Other researchers use more scientific methods to study religion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, for instance, suggest that humans’ need for religion evolved out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and out of human fear of the unknown or uncontrollable. They believe that these needs were transformed into hope—hope for a better life after death, for example, or for a caring creator who will watch over humanity, and for an ultimate meaning of human existence that science cannot explain.
A third approach focuses on the cultural, social, and personal context of religion. This allows scholars to avoid the pretense of evaluating different religions normatively and instead study them phenomenologically.