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What Is Religion?

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Religion is a large subject. Some think it the most important matter for consideration (or the only one). Others believe that it wasteful to devote time to the study of what has proved to be an archaic and often destructive force in human society. I, personally, am not sure what I think. This series of essays is my attempt to clarify a little bit about the subject: what it is, how it affects people's lives, and ultimately whether it is true, and good, and useful, or not. This first essay will attempt a definition. has several definitions for religion: "the service and worship of God or the supernatural"; "a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices"; and "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith." These are general enough, especially the last, to refer to atheists, communists, nationalists, and extremists of all flavors, as well as the more traditionally devout.

But what really is religion? Some would say that our distant ancestors invented it as a way to explain the strange and mysterious world around them, and we are simply heirs to the diverse mass of mutually contradictory beliefs that have been invented, rejected, and revised by thousands of subsequent generations. (They then draw various conclusions about the usefulness of these beliefs, but that is for a future essay.)

Others say that religion is simply truth that cannot be perceived by ordinary senses. At some point in history, the Supreme Being (God, for convenience, though different religions hold many conflicting ideas about the name and nature and even the existence of this entity) chose to reveal the secrets of the universe and human destiny to one particular group of people, or a prophet, or some otherwise limited initial group. (Most religions of this sort, of course, believe that their religion is true for all people, but since a multitude of different beliefs exist elsewhere they must come up with reasons for why other people believe differently. That also will be discussed in more depth in a later essay.)

There are many variations on this theme: many groups claim that only their exact teachings please God, and everyone else, including ones with very similar beliefs (to outsiders, at least) is wrong. Others say that God revealed himself in different ways to different people, so that although the trappings of the religion of, say, a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Sunni Muslim might differ, at heart they are all about the same thing - though, here again,



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