Religion is a taxon of social-cultural systems whose most well-known members are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The concept of religion also covers a wide range of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, ethics or rules, prophecies, and organizations that people use to structure their lives together. Religions, in other words, provide a framework that people can orient their minds and bodies to reach the most important goals they can imagine for themselves or for others. Some of these goals are proximate, having to do with living a wiser, more fruitful, or more charitable life in this world; other goals are ultimate, concerned with the final condition of a human person or of the cosmos itself. Religions protect and transmit the means for reaching such goals, and in this way make life a little easier for people to manage as they struggle through this project of existence.

Most attempts to analyze the nature of religion have been based on monothetic approaches, which operate with the classical view that every instance of something is accurately described by a property that distinguishes it from everything else. The last several decades have seen the emergence of polythetic approaches, which treat concepts, such as religion, as having prototypes that share common features.

Polythetic analyses recognize that religions are early and successful protective systems tethered to the potentialities of the brain and body, and tied to the necessity for survival. Such protection systems give people the confidence and security to explore their own minds and bodies, to experiment with a variety of relationships, and to seek meaning, inspiration, and ideas for themselves and the world around them. This exploration of human possibility – what some have called somatic exploration, from the Greek word for body, soma – is what distinguishes religions from other social formations and makes them the heart of what could otherwise be a cruel and heartless world.

For most people, the religions they adopt become the core of their identity. They also shape their sense of what it means to be a member of a particular group or society and help them to define the boundaries of what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, ethical or unethical. They form the cultural backdrop for a great many philosophies, ethics, laws, judicial decisions, and personal beliefs that are at once practical, spiritual, ethical, and philosophical.

Religions have made a huge imprint on culture, and can be discerned in language and literature, music and art, the ways people arrange their lives together, dress codes, and even genital alterations such as male circumcision. They have influenced politics and international relations, as well as how people perceive themselves and the world they live in. Religions are also the source of a tremendous amount of conflict and violence. But they are also the source of a great deal of compassion, good works, and community spirit. People who are prepared to meet their gods – and to meet each other – are likely to be a lot happier in this world.

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