Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that are said to create a moral community. The concept was initially derived from the Latin word religio, which roughly means “scrupulousness”. It is now used in an almost equivalence with “conscientiousness”, “devotedness” and “feeling of obligation” to an abstract or divine power. Some scholars use the term to refer to any system of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or that provide orientation in life; they therefore treat religion as a pan-human phenomenon. Other scholars have rejected thing-hood and opted for a functional definition of the concept, arguing that religion names an inevitable feature of human culture.

The fact that many different beliefs and practices are said to belong to the same category raises some philosophical issues, as is true of other concepts that sort cultural types: does this particular taxon really have an essence? The answer is probably not. But it is also difficult to deny that the various religions, and other spiritual traditions, are able to make some aspects of reality feel more real than others. The reason for this is that most people need to cope with the problems of living and coping in a complex world, and so they need ways to reduce the anxiety generated by uncertainty and unpredictability. The most obvious way they do this is through religions, which offer maps of time and space that help to orient their lives.

There is a great deal of research evidence that shows that religions and spiritual practices have positive effects on well-being. For example, religious people tend to live longer than non-religious people and there is some evidence that prayer and ritualized worship are beneficial to health. However, most studies that link religion with health and well-being report correlations rather than causal links.

One reason for this is that people have a tendency to attribute the benefits of their religion to its supernatural aspects. For example, Blaise Pascal argued that if there was even a tiny chance that God existed, then taking the risk of faith was a mathematically rational choice because an eternity of life and happiness would be more valuable than the small, calculable loss resulting from death or other bad outcomes.

In recent years, a number of scholars have therefore pulled back from the view that it is appropriate to consider religion as something naturally occurring across the planet and have sought to understand it more fully as a constructed concept. They have tended to argue that the concept’s semantic expansion went hand in hand with the rise of modern European colonialism, and that we should stop treating it as a universally existing object (Possamai 2018: ch 5). They have also questioned whether the substantive definitions of the term are correct or not. It is certainly not possible to prove that any of these definitions is right or wrong. But it is also hard to see how they can be right, given that they are stipulative and not descriptive.

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