The Definition of Religion

Religion is a vast area of human activity. It encompasses a great variety of beliefs, practices, institutions, and experiences. Its boundaries are often blurred, as in the case of the many new spiritual movements, such as Wicca and Neopagannism, that do not fit neatly into any established faith tradition. The scholarly study of religion is thus difficult and prone to controversy. There are over 6.2 billion people in the world who identify themselves as religious.

Most scholars agree that there are certain fundamental experiences and attitudes that are common to all religions. These include the belief in a transcendent spiritual reality, the experience of the sacred, and the sense of moral imperatives. Religious experiences may also involve rituals and ceremonies, mystical or altered states of consciousness, and emotional and psychological states such as crying, laughing, or being in a trancelike state. Religious teachings and values are often complex and highly individualized, although the social dimension of religion has important consequences for society.

Attempts to define religion have tended toward substantive definitions, such as the belief in a supernatural deity or in the survival of the soul after death. Such definitions tend to be exclusive and can exclude people whose religious experiences are quite profound.

Another approach, used mainly by sociologists and anthropologists, is a functional definition of religion. This is defined by Emile Durkheim as the belief in a group of practices that unite people into a moral community, regardless of whether or not they believe in unusual realities.

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