When people talk about religion, it is usually in reference to some combination of beliefs, practices and values. The term is so broad that a simple definition is hard to find, though some writers have tried. A common version defines it as a system connected to spiritual and supernatural components that impacts people’s worldview, behavior, belief, culture, morality and approach to certain writings or persons. It is a large, complicated, often confusing, and powerful set of influences.
Many different peoples have developed religions, but they all share some common characteristics. These include a sacred community and place of worship; the use of myth and symbol; the concept of salvation; a code of ethical behavior; special actions and rituals; the idea of sacrifice; a priesthood or clergy to lead believers; the concept of divinity; a deity or gods to which believers pray; and a central figure or person that becomes almost godlike in status. Most religions also have specific teachings or doctrines that describe what they believe, and they have a range of rules and regulations to ensure that people live up to their values.
These common features are enough to distinguish religions from other social systems and to evoke the distinctive word that we have in English. They are not, however, enough to establish that any particular set of beliefs and practices is a religion. To make that judgment, we must look at the ways in which these religions function as protective systems.
A key part of this function is to create and transmit the means to attain some very important goals, both proximate and ultimate. The proximate goals are typically those that can be attained within this life, such as a wiser, more charitable, more fruitful, and more successful way of living. The ultimate goals, on the other hand, are those that can be attained only after death, when the dead are judged by a higher power for their rewards or punishments.
It is these proximate and ultimate goals that give religions their power to influence and even control human lives. They provide a framework for sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation that can shape and even control the choices that people make about what to do and where to go with their lives.
This is the fundamental reason why a religious system may be seen as a powerful, pervasive influence on human beings and why it may be considered dangerous or even evil in some cases. These are the reasons why it is so important to understand how a religion works, and the reason why so many people are reluctant to do so. It is this understanding that will allow us to see the value and beauty of the religions that we have, while also recognizing the dangers that they pose. We will be able to do this by using one of the newest tools in the academic study of religion: the functional analysis of complex social systems.