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Religion is subject to much study and discussion in the fields of theology, sociology, anthropology, and among ordinary people.
The rationalistic approach to the study of religion emphasizes observable aspects: its beliefs about the divine, the ritual practices that those beliefs inspire, the institutions that arise to control those beliefs and practices, and the explanations that those beliefs offer for such mysteries as the origin of the world and the nature of life and death.
This approach makes it possible to conveniently classify things as either “religious”, “anti-religious”, or “secular” in relation to that religion.
Unfortunately, this approach is poorly suited to defining the border between religious and non-religious thought when dealing with the phenomenon of religion as a whole.
There exist other schools of thought which emphasize those aspects of religion that are not easily observable. One such approach sometimes referred to as “Hebrew thought”, emphasizes the “function” of religion, particularly the sense of identity that it imparts to a community.
From this standpoint, a “religion” is any set of beliefs that define who we are by defining our origins, our present status (ontology), the end to which we are heading, and the means by which it is to be reached (teleology). Any system of beliefs that fulfills any of these functions—including some that are not normally considered religions, such as Communism, philosophical naturalism, and evolution (whose explanation of human origins is interpreted as a creation belief)—is ipso facto a religion.
The main advantage of this definition is its ability to include seamlessly all of the beliefs and practices that are considered religious.
According to its advocates, another advantage of this approach lies in its recognition of the fact that the phenomenon usually perceived as a conflict between “religion” and “anti-religion” is in fact competition between different fundamentalisms.
The inclusiveness of this definition is viewed as a disadvantage by its detractors, who do not see secular belief systems with some ontological or teleological elements as religions.
More generally, an important disadvantage of any approach to defining religion that emphasizes those aspects of religion that are not easily observable, such as its “function” in society, is the inherent difficulty of agreeing on the nature or even the existence of those aspects.
In contrast, religion’s formal aspects are easy to agree upon, making it possible to make them the basis for a thorough anthropological or sociological analysis. Consequently, most major thinkers prefer to examine the formal, observable aspects of religion.