Religion is the system of beliefs and practices that acknowledges dependence on a supreme Deity. The recognition of this dependency exercises not just the will but the imagination and emotions; it engenders hope in man for communion with that Deity whose help he knows he needs. In the highest form of religion this hope is elevated to a love of God. This enables him to overcome the fear and sorrow of life on earth and, at death, to attain Heaven. In the lowest form of religion, however, hope is suppressed, and the worship of the Deity is simply an act of self-gratification, motivated by the desire for reward in the next world.

The question of the origins of religion is one that has occupied human minds for thousands of years. Anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and their origins) usually suggest that religion arose as a response to either a biological or a cultural need. The biological view suggests that religion evolved when humans became aware of the fact that they were dying and realized that there was no guarantee of a continuing existence on earth. This realization prompted the search for a way to avoid death or, at least, a belief that they would have an afterlife.

In the more advanced forms of religion, this belief in an afterlife led to the development of rituals, a system of morality, and a philosophy that explained the origin of the universe. In many cases, the early religions were polytheistic; in other words, they recognized more than one god or goddess. Eventually, these religious systems developed into a coherent whole. For example, Christianity grew from tribal totems and ancestor worship in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Then, in the Middle Ages, Christianity was further refined by philosophers and scientists and organized into a central system with a Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and laypeople with varying levels of authority and responsibility.

Scientific studies indicate that people who are part of religious communities tend to be healthier than those who are not. This is not because of miracles or divine healing, but because of the different methods of coping with stress that these traditions provide. For example, the importance of social connection in a religious community can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which increase the impact of all other stresses on health. The disciplined practice of meditation and prayer can strengthen the immune system and improve cardiovascular function. And, the recitation of prayers can reduce depression and anxiety.

Religious and spiritual practices can be thought of as a combination of psychological therapy and self-improvement techniques. For example, the study of mythology and scripture can teach us about history, values, and culture; the practice of prayer and sacraments can lead to spirituality and self-discovery; the moral teachings of most religions can provide guidance on how to live a good life. These and many other aspects of religious faith can improve the ability to cope with all life’s challenges.

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