Religion – The Heart and Soul of the World


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, practices and ethics that includes belief in a supernatural order of things, sacred histories and mythologies and the practice of prayer and worship. Some religions promote a strict code of morality while others are more philosophical in nature. All religious beliefs have their roots in the ancient human need for faith, meaning and value. They also provide a framework of meaning for life and a foundation on which to live it.

There is a great deal of diversity amongst religions in terms of the specific beliefs they espouse, but what they all have in common is that they provide people with the means through which they can accomplish their proximate and ultimate goals. They do this in a wide variety of ways: sacrificially, ecstatically, generously, obediently, prayerfully, puritanically and ritualistically. They do this through a wide variety of specialists: priests, witches, shamans, imams, rabbi’s and gurus; and they do it within a framework of rules that can be either restrictive or expansive, depending on the specific religion in question.

It is this system of meaning and value, of reward and punishment, of approval and disapproval, that defines religions and gives them their power. As such, religions create a context of security that allows people to explore their own inner worlds and the world around them with a degree of confidence that has been unobtainable in the absence of these systems. This is why the study of sociobiology has argued that religions are essentially early and successful protective systems that have evolved over millennia as a result of their beneficial effects on gene-replication.

Although this view is contested by some scientists and many philosophers, the fact remains that all religions have their origin in the human need for faith, meaning and value. The fact that they have survived to the present day is testament to the strength and vitality of this need.

Religions are often criticised for intolerance, cruelty, social oppression, self-opinionated nastiness and the subordination of women. But there is no doubt that they remain, as they have throughout history, the heart and soul of a world which would otherwise be without them.

It is for this reason that we can only understand the true nature of religion by exploring the cultural systems in which they are embedded, a task that has been done by an array of writers including Friedrich Nietzsche, René Descartes and Emile Durkheim. There is no one answer to the question as to what exactly defines religion; but most modern scholars would agree that, despite their vast differences, they all share some elements that distinguish them from other worldviews and life-styles. In short, religion is what it is because it makes us who we are. This article was originally published on Psych Central and has been reproduced with permission.

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