Religion is a broad category of beliefs, practices and institutions. Often, it also encapsulates a culture’s views about the universe and life after death. However, the term is not universally applied or understood. There are people in the world who don’t believe in any afterlife or supernatural beings and others who have very different ideas about what constitutes a religion.
Sociobiology is one theory that has been used to explain the origin of religion. The basic argument is that religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that were tied to the potentialities of the brain and body, as well as to the necessities of survival. Once these systems were established, they provided confidence and security within which people could explore their own natures and societies, as well as the environment around them. This exploration, known as somatic exploration (from Greek soma = ‘body’), was and is religious in character.
Religions were designed to monitor, codify and protect information deemed of great value, from individual to individual and from generation to generation. This information includes the most fundamental aspects of the human experience, from sex and reproduction to salvation and afterlife.
Ideally, religion provides meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate individuals to work for positive social change. Unfortunately, it can also lead to social conflict and even violence. The history of the world is filled with examples of people and nations persecuting, torturing, and killing each other over religious differences.
Many people have criticized this idea, arguing that to define religion in terms of the activities and mental states of individuals is a form of anthropocentrism. This viewpoint, often referred to as the sociobiological perspective, has been supported by research that reveals how closely some religions are related to each other and by arguments from cognitive science that show that mental states can be characterized by certain patterns and tendencies that are shared by members of a group.
Another criticism is that it is impossible to define religion in a general way, owing to the fact that it is an essentially subjective concept. Some scholars have suggested that to view religion in terms of beliefs and mental states reflects a Protestant bias that ignores the visible institutional structures and disciplinary practices that are involved in producing those beliefs and mental states.
Other critics of the social scientific approach to religion argue that it is a semantically constructed concept, and that its expansion went hand in hand with modern European colonialism. Still other critiques have gone so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as religion, and that to use the word at all in a scientific context is a form of pseudoscience or magical thinking. Regardless of the debate over definition, there is no question that religion is a powerful force in all cultures. Whether it is a source of stability and peace, or violence and conflict, it is a crucial aspect of the human experience.