The Nature of Religion

Religion is a very large category of human phenomena. It is an essential part of the human experience, as it is the basis for many cherished values and beliefs, from personal piety to ethical codes, moral systems and laws. Religions are also the source of the most enduring and moving of all cultural creations, such as art and architecture, music, dance and drama, poetry and literature and the explorations of the cosmos that issued into what we now call natural science.

In addition, religions are vital to the survival of the species; they provide the framework within which a range of social activities take place, from the formation of marriage to the management of the commons and even, sometimes, to the organisation of society itself. This is not a trivial assertion and it deserves to be explored in more depth, since the study of religions has long been one of the most important areas for the social sciences.

Nevertheless, despite their enormous variety, all religions share certain characteristics that define them as such, a characteristic that we can call “valorization.” Religions are systems for the monitoring, coding, protecting and transmitting of information that has proven to be of a particular value to humans. This information is of a particular kind, in that it has to do with the most fundamental and intensely valued human goals, both proximate and ultimate, as defined by each religion itself.

These goals may be the achievement of a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful life; they could also be the attainment of the goal of rebirth or, in the case of religions that judge after death, an eventual condition of joy or pain, reward or punishment. In any event, they all imply that human beings have an essential destiny that transcends this existence, and that a religion provides the means by which such destiny can be attained.

This is why it is a mistake to regard religions as just a form of worship. As we will see, the definition of religion includes much that is not worshipful, and it is also true that the practice of religion can be dangerously corrupted by intolerance, cruelty, bigotry and self-opinionated nastiness. Nonetheless, religions are, as Ninian Smart has suggested, “the heart and soul of what might otherwise be, and often has been, a heartless world.”