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What Is Religious Belief? - Definition & Systems

What Is Religious Belief? - Definition & Systems
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  • 0:00 What Is Religious Belief?
  • 0:43 The Need For Religious Beliefs
  • 1:37 One Size Does Not Fit All
  • 2:38 Reconciling Beliefs
  • 4:14 Religious Beliefs Today
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

Is there a Heaven? Where did people come from? These questions and more have been answered through the religious beliefs of every human civilization throughout history.

What Is Religious Belief?

In order to define religious belief, we should start by defining religion in general. Religion is the entire collection of beliefs, values, and practices that a group holds to be the true and sacred. A group's religious beliefs explain where the people fit in relation to the universe and how they should behave while here on Earth.

Religious belief is a crucial part of that larger concept, and it is distinct from religious practice. Maybe you know someone who is very spiritual and teeming with beliefs, but who does not practice any religious rituals or engage in any other outward signs of religion. On the other hand, don't you know someone who attends church every Sunday but who doesn't really believe the full meaning of the words as he is saying in prayers? We call this 'going through the motions.'

The Need Religious Beliefs

Every human civilization that we know about has had religious beliefs of some sort. Most of this evidence comes in the form of burial inscriptions or other artifacts found by archaeologists. Why is religion so important that every society had one?

Fertility Goddess from Minoan Crete
Minoan Crete

Religious beliefs serve a social function in human groups, providing a shared identity of where people came from and where they are likely going after death. Every person who has walked the earth has probably wondered 'What is my purpose in life?' 'What or who is up there in the sky?'

In an often chaotic world, full of seemingly inexplicable violence and unforeseen disasters, religious beliefs can fill the gap and provide meaning and comfort. When a baby suddenly dies, people want answers. When the drought ruins the only food crop for the fifth year in a row, people want to feel like they can change the course of nature by engaging in ritual sacrifices or dances.

One Size Does Not Fit All

While almost every religion contains the common elements of a creation story, an end-of-world prophecy, and a code of ethical laws to live by, there are noteworthy variances in religious styles. A 19th century paradigm of evolutionary religious organization argued that cultures naturally moved from animism to polytheism to monotheism; however, more recent religious studies have revealed that this progression is not a hard and fast rule.

Sure, many ancient civilizations believed in animism--that all natural objects, such as trees and rocks, have an inherent value and even a life force--and many modern societies are dominated by monotheistic faiths--religions that argue for the existence of only one God--but there are certainly exceptions. Also, think about Hinduism, which can be argued by religious scholars as either monotheistic--one deity--or polytheistic--multiple gods.

Reconciling Beliefs

So how do we reconcile all of these beliefs? We don't. Instead, we realize that religious beliefs serve an undeniably important function in human societies, both ancient and modern. Part of human identity is the basic need to categorize the space around us and bestow meaning on unexplained natural events. Additionally, psychologists explain that people have a tendency to see intelligent design in the natural world. This is related to the concept of anthropomorphism, which is when people give human characteristics to non-human creatures or land features.

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