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What Is Religion? - Definition & Role in Society

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  • 0:01 Problems with Definition
  • 1:41 Belief in Supernatural
  • 2:25 Moral Code
  • 3:34 Ritual Acts
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the traits of religion. Using the works of Tillich and Noss, it will highlight religion's belief in the supernatural, its inclusion of a moral code, and its use of prescribed ritual acts.

Problems with Definition

The famous theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as the 'ultimate concern.' In his massive work Systematic Theology, he went to great lengths to explain what religion and faith really is. However, most agree this is easier said than done.

In reality, defining the term religion is a difficult task for even the most studied of sociologist and theologians. Since it means many different things to many different people, it's rather hard to nail down. For this reason, most agree definitions usually fail by being either too narrow or too vague. For example, some define religion as a belief in an all-powerful being. However, this definition excludes those who believe in an abstract spiritual presence that can't be defined. On the other hand, some say religion is simply a cultural world view. This vague approach also comes up short as it would then include ideologies, such as socialism, communism and even capitalism, as religions.

In order to deal with this, many choose to take an alternate route. Rather than trying to define what religion is, they explain what it looks like. In doing this, there seems to be some consensus on traits that all or most religions share. Today, we'll tackle a few of these main traits. They are the belief in the supernatural, an inclusion of a moral code and the carrying out of prescribed ritual acts.

Belief in Supernatural

To start, a belief in the supernatural is at the cornerstone of most religions. To state it simply, it's the idea that there is something greater or bigger than us in the universe. This has been witnessed across time as the early Babylonians bowed to Marduk, while the Jews worshiped their Yahweh.

In most cases, these supernatural beings are regarded as holy and sacred. With this belief comes a mixture of fear and awe. In many ways, it's like a young child standing by a large bonfire. Its heat brings the child a mix of fascination and fear, making him both drawn to it and afraid of it at the same time.

Moral Code

This fear and awe definitely attributes to the next trait of most religions: the inclusion of a moral code. These regulations act as a code of conduct to be followed. An excellent example of this is the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. For millennia, young children have memorized the rules of 'thou shall not kill,' 'thou shall not covet,' 'thou shall not steal' and so on.

Adding to its moral 'dos', religion also provides its culture with a list of 'don'ts.' Known as taboos, these actions or things are considered forbidden. A great example of this is the Jewish belief that all meat from a pig is unclean and therefore forbidden.

Not only can things be taboo, but sacred or holy places can also be forbidden to non-ordained members, or laymen, of the faith. Again using the Jewish religion, the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem was a great example of this. Any laymen who dared step foot into this back chamber faced the risk of being struck dead!

Ritual Acts

Building on the belief in the supernatural and the inclusion of a moral code, our last trait of religion is the carrying out of prescribed ritual acts. According to David Noss, author of A History of the World's Religions, the belief in the supernatural leads humans to a state of anxiety.

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