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  Humankind, it seems, has always felt the need to search for God, whether to survive in a hostile environment at a time when good weather, good hunting and the safe delivery of healthy children were crucial, or to explain the sense of awe and wonder inspired by particular events or sacred places, or to assuage the anguish in the human soul. The etymology of the word ‘religion’ (Latin, religio) is disputed, but the most logical is that it is a combination of res, ‘a thing’, and ligare, ‘to bind’. Religion is thus what binds things together (such as families, societies, the world), and which enables humankind to live in harmony with the animal world and with the gods. In most societies it is the basis for morality and for all human relationships, especially where it is believed that there is a divine law controlling all things, and it gives meaning to life. Inequality and injustice in this life can be rectified by appeal to either divine intervention now, or to another dimension to which one can escape. Many religions promise personal transformation and/or that of society, in this life or the next, but essentially religion is concerned with this life.

To sociologists at least, one of the best ways of thinking about religion is in terms of what it is not. It is not necessarily the belief in one god (religions can involve many deities). It is not identifiable with moral prescriptions for human behaviour (the idea that gods are interested in behaviour on Earth is alien to many religions). It is not necessarily concerned with the origins of the world (some religions have myths of origin but many do not). It cannot be identified as intrinsically involving a belief in the supernatural (some beliefs and practices conventionally thought of as religious—Buddhism, for example—do not correspond to this definition).

What, then, is religion? The sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) defined religion as a system of beliefs and rituals which binds people together in terms of social groups. This certainly seems to include features that all religions have in common. Whether or not a religion involves a belief in god or the gods, there are virtually always objects which inspire awe. Religions practise diverse rituals and all religions involve ceremonials practised collectively by believers. Critics have pointed out, however, that such a definition is rather inclusive, since almost all public activity has an integrative effect on human groups. (Football matches are an example).

In Europe, after the wars of religion which followed the Reformation, the price for peace was the increasing secularization of society. The trend among monarchs in Roman Catholic countries was to keep the church at arm\'s length and drastically curtail its temporal power. In Protestant countries, this was paralleled by the demand that all denominations be treated equally. This coincided with the rise of modern science, and with the Evangelical revivals, with their heavy emphasis on personal piety. The result was that with the exception of events such as coronations, Remembrance Sunday, etc., religion became a private affair rather than a societal concern. In global terms, this was and is an aberration. In most countries outside the West, religion is viewed as embracing the whole of life (as Christianity does theoretically). In Islamic countries, for example, one sees clearly the effect of governing all life by religious practice; everything is done in response to the divine will. In India, there is no word for ‘religion’, only dharma, which could be translated as one\'s religious duties but also means the faith prescribed for each person, the duties one has to family, society and the gods, and above all the obligation to fulfil one\'s function in society to the best of one\'s ability. (This is the Latin concept of pietas, often misleadingly translated as ‘piety’.) Neglect by one person threatens the well-being of the whole of society.

In other words, religion is not just something believers do; it defines what they are. Many scholars hold that religion involves not only the performance of rites, but also inner experience of an extra-personal reality. For this reason there is debate as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, since no such reality was acknowledged until Buddhism had absorbed elements of tribal religion. In Judaism the same tension is resolved by the saying ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, and the command (shared with Christianity) to love the Lord God with heart and mind, soul and strength.

There would seem to be no authoritative answer to the question of whether religion is an innate quality of the human personality, or whether it is implanted by society and experience. But there is no denying the quality of the lives of saints of every faith, or of the fine art, drama and literature religion has inspired. In some faiths the answers are that there is within every person an element of the divine, or that the believer can become infused with God\'s spirit. In an uncertain and unstable world, religion offers many people security, marks the transitions from one stage of life to another, and offers an assurance of continuing existence after death. DA RK EMJ KMcL

See also animism; charisma; church; Confucianism; Daoism; Hinduism; Islam; secularization; Shinto.Further reading S.S. Acquaviva, The Decline of the Sacred in Industrial Society; , É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912); , Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religions; A History of Religious Ideas 3 vols; , R. Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion; , B.S. Turner, Religion and Social Theory.



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