Understanding Religion

Religion is a complex and deeply rooted system of beliefs, rituals and moral codes that connect individuals and communities to a higher power or the divine. It often encompasses explanations about the origin of the universe, the purpose of life and the nature of human existence. Religions vary widely in their teachings, cultural expressions, and traditions, but all play a significant role in shaping societies. While some religious studies courses use textbooks that take a standard “dates and doctrine” approach, other resources help students understand the complexities and nuances of modern-day beliefs and practices. These resources include detailed, fact-based analyses of current events; descriptions of the variety of religious beliefs and practices in contemporary society; and first-person accounts of what it is like to live according to a particular belief system.

In order to be considered a religion, a belief system must contain one or more supernatural beings who control the course of the universe and/or human life, and/or provide rewards and punishment for morally correct or uncorrected behaviour. Thus, the majority of the world’s religions believe in a god or gods who have created, or continue to create, the universe and human beings, and/or govern the lives of those who follow their teachings.

Most religious systems also offer explanations about the afterlife or a transcendent reality. Some of these explanations are’mystical’, and focus on experiences of the spirit world or the existence of a soul that can be communicated with after death. Other explanations are more rational, and focus on the nature of the cosmos, and/or human beings’ place within it. In addition, some religions have a strong emphasis on exploration of the inner self, in terms of enlightenment, peace, emptiness or Buddha-nature, and are therefore known as ‘inversive systems’.

A major function of religions is to provide people with the means to attain the most important goals imaginable. Some of these are ‘proximate’, and involve developing a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful or fulfilling way of living (as defined by the religion); others are ‘ultimate’, and have to do with the final condition of this or any other human being, or even of the cosmos itself. Religions also help people to deal with the many limitations that stand before them in this project of life by providing maps of time and space, so that past events can be ‘visited’ in order to be healed or forgiven, and the future is not completely unknown.

In a sense, all religions make life as a project a little easier for their members, by giving them a sense of purpose and offering the opportunity of spiritual success, however it is described. For this reason, all religions are important, and their study is an essential part of the academic discipline of Religious Studies.