Religions, in one form or another, have existed from prehistoric times and frequently include much of the old in their new formats. They share many characteristics, and some of these are listed (in no specific order) below.
Most religions, if not all, seem to have developed from the ideas of one thoughtful person, frequently one who desired to change people’s behaviour by educating them.
Religions and beliefs in a god or gods were once necessary to explain how the universe and life began, and why "mysterious" events such as eclipses and plagues occurred—roles now more skilfully performed by science (see The Universe and Life).
Religions incorporate and adapt occurrences remembered from the distant past (such as the Flood), as well as myths taken from other religions (such as Creation, or the Garden of Eden), and give them some special significance.
Religions differ from place to place, with the majority of any population professing allegiance to the local creed. Periodically, differences of opinion arise that cause factions to split off and establish variants of the original belief.
People generally adopt the religion of their forefathers. However, individuals occasionally convert from their family religion to another, typically upon marriage to a person of another faith, or if pressing needs are not being met, if a compelling preacher attracts them, if converting brings financial or social benefits, or if practising their belief threatens their survival.
Religious groups build or select special places (such as churches, shrines or rivers) that are held to be significant in the conduct of that religion.
Religions develop formalized, hierarchically structured organizations that, whenever circumstances permit, grow larger, become more complex, and eventually build edifices of some magnificence.
Religions formulate ways to communicate with their god (such as meditation, the Eucharist, or prayer).
Religions develop rituals, life-cycle rites (such as baptisms, funerals and processions) and festivals to be conducted at particular times, on special days, or during certain seasons, when something of historical or seasonal significance is commemorated or celebrated.
Religions frequently teach by relating stories or parables crafted to illustrate virtues or values deemed to be worthy of emulation.
Religions prescribe how to behave (and, not infrequently, how to dress) and give reasons why this behaviour should be followed. They define procedures (such as confession, covering the head, or prostration) to be followed to achieve particular religious purposes, and they devise special behaviours (such as making the sign of a cross, undertaking pilgrimages, or genuflecting) that publicly demonstrate allegiance.
Religions hold faith and belief to be more important than facts or reason.
Religions centre upon some kind of unity, and state there is purpose to life. They give followers an identity and a morality, and provide solace and hope in times of trouble. Many religions hold that a heaven or paradise awaits all true believers after their death.
Above all, religions attempt to simplify moral decision making. (Perhaps this is why portions of religious texts are often cited as sanctioning actions taken, particularly by fundamentalists seeking to justify reprehensible acts).
This summary is in no way exhaustive—for instance, while followers receive many benefits from religions, few are listed here. Being able to provide so much for so many is probably the second most important reason to support religions’ continuance. (The primary function of any religion is to provide the purpose used in moral decision making.)
However, while we gain much comfort from the beliefs and practices religions foster, religions can also hinder our ability to think rationally and openly. This may never have been more evident than it is today, when we might arguably claim that religious differences are creating more discord in the world than any other single issue, yet this topic is seldom raised at international levels (such as the United Nations), presumably out of fear that the discussions would rapidly become unmanageable.
- Hinduism, being a compilation of ideas and beliefs, many of which are thousands of years old, cannot be traced back to one founder.
- Xenophanes, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, and Cornelius Tacitus all noted differences in religious beliefs, traditions and practices as they travelled from one country to another.
- See Benedict, Patterns of Culture, 254.
- Durkheim insisted that society itself makes religion important; that religion is neither a revelation from on high, nor the consequences of some misguided individual’s beliefs and actions (see Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, first published in 1915).
- Moral standards vary from culture to culture. Practices such as polygamy, infanticide, suicide, genocide, male dominance (including the power of life or death over wives), killing ancient parents, genital mutilation, and torture, all formed part of past (and some current) cultures. A concept known as ethical relativism (see almost any text on anthropology) warns us against judging another culture’s morality using standards drawn from our own.
Most ethicists argue that there must be some underlying moral principles that are universally “right.” The trouble with this, as we now know, is that no one has found any such values, although some contend they have. The only single underlying principle, of any possible relevance, that I can think of, is the universe’s causality. Perhaps we will be able to use this, some day, to determine moral righteousness.
- About three billion people (including Christians, Muslims, and Jews) can be said to be unified by their worship of one theistic God. Another billion people (Hindus) identify Brahman as the one eternal, absolute reality that is the universe, with all else being manifestations. And Buddhists endorse the impersonal cosmic order as being the ultimate reality. Thus, religions generally focus on the idea of one entity, God or otherwise, being of dominant importance.