Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and actions that binds together the members of a group. It teaches a code of behavior, usually including moral values and beliefs in a supreme being or in the natural world. It often includes a belief in heaven and hell, life after death, sacred rites and rituals, holy books, and a clergy or priesthood to oversee the group’s activities. It may also involve a reverence for certain places, symbols, days, or other things.
There are many different approaches to understanding religion. Psychologists, who study the mind and human emotions, argue that religion fulfills psychological needs in humans, such as a need to give meaning to life or a sense of purpose. Neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, have found that there are parts of the brain that can create religious experiences. Biologically, the theory of memes (a concept derived from evolutionary biology) holds that ideas can be transmitted in the same way that genes are, from one person to another.
The stipulative definitions, which limit the number of properties that a phenomenon must have in order to be considered a religion, are problematic, according to de Muckadell. For example, ice-skating does not qualify as a religion, even if it involves singing and being on ice with friends. Stipulative definitions also force scholars to simply accept whatever definition is offered.
Open polythetic definitions, on the other hand, allow for a broader range of properties to be included when classifying phenomena. They enable the discovery of patterns within a set of characteristics and can lead to the development of explanatory theories.
Nevertheless, the open polythetic model comes with its own drawbacks. First, it does not take into account that people’s notions of the truth and beauty are rooted in their physical culture, habits, and body structure. To address this, it is possible to add a fourth C (for community) to the classic three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good.
In the end, what is important about a religion is its ability to offer people protection, both in a literal sense – by giving them a place to go after they die – and in a more symbolic sense, by providing them with hope for an eternally better future. It is this that makes it special and enables it to stand in contrast with the heartless, ruthless societies of our time. For this reason, it is the religions of the world that need to be protected and supported in their most vital and vulnerable aspects.