Does Religion Have an Essence?


Religion is a phenomenon that people use to provide meaning and value in their lives. It is the primary source that people turn to when they are looking for answers to life’s big questions. It also provides a foundation for moral order and in past times, it gave rise to organized social institutions that helped guide civilizations through periods of transition.

A religion is an organized system of beliefs and practices concerning the nature of the universe, the cause and reason for human events, and an individual’s relationship to God or gods. It often includes devotional and ritual observances as well as an array of specific behaviors such as prayer, worship, moral conduct, and participation in religious institutions. It also teaches that there is afterlife in the form of heaven, hell, or limbo and that there are certain writings, persons, and places that are considered holy.

It is important to understand that there is tremendous variety in what people consider to be a religion. Attempts to define religion must take into account this variety, and it is likely that no definition will satisfy everyone. Some might consider magic or UFOs to be part of a religion, for example, and it may be difficult to come up with a definition that excludes these phenomena.

In the earliest usage of the term, a religion was considered to be an organized system of belief and practice in which people believed that they were under obligation to obey certain taboos, promises, or curses. However, in the Middle Ages, a religion was more usually defined as a belief in one or more gods that had been created by humans.

Modern scholars have used the concept of religion to describe a broad taxonomic category, and its paradigmatic examples include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism. The wide range of practices that have been sorted into this taxonomic category, as well as the fact that there is great variation in what individuals believe to be true religions, have led some to wonder whether the concept of religion has an essence.

Some argue that thinking of religion in terms of a set of beliefs or any subjective states is to focus on an unimportant aspect of the phenomenon, and that instead it is more useful to think of it as a family-resemblance concept that consists of a group of related but distinct phenomena. Others object to this argument on the grounds that it would be impossible to determine what characteristics must be present in a belief or behavior for it to qualify as a religion, and that the only way to determine whether something belongs in this taxonomic category is to study it.

Other scholars, especially those who subscribe to the idea of a scientific methodology, have suggested that studying these religious phenomena in this way will allow for new and exciting discoveries about them. For example, Rodney Needham cites the work of a computer program that sorted 1500 different bacterial strains according to 200 separate properties, revealing interesting patterns and connections between them.