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|—Dr. Pascal Boyer, commenting on religions|
A religion is a systematic set of beliefs, rituals and codifications of behaviour that revolves around a particular group's worldview (views about the world at large and humanity's place in the world). Typically, these beliefs center around some aspect of the supernatural which is most often expressed as some form of deity, ie., gods and goddesses.
To the extent that the system of beliefs and rules are codified, they are called dogma; religions vary in how much dogma they include and how strictly they define it and enforce it. Religious mythology are the stories that develop, largely from oral tradition, to explain and describe the worldview of the religion. Religious beliefs tend to arise from humanity's attempts to explain their world, and where possible, to control it.
 Definition and identification
Like "beauty" and "porn," it is very easy to recognize that a given mainstream Western religion is a religion; the term "religion" created to identify a distinctly Western phenomena. As you move away from Western polytheist and monotheist religions into Eastern religions and some indigenous religions, the line becomes a bit blurred. Theravada Buddhism, for example is sometimes called a religion, other times a philosophy.
The following (incomplete) list are things academics look for in the attempt to define a set of beliefs and practices as a religion. Of course for every rule, there are exceptions, but in general:
- Religions are generally shared social systems. A solitary follower of a set of beliefs he or she made up is generally not considered part of a religion.
- Religions have mythologies, often containing supernatural themes.
- Religions address a person's path in life through rites of passage, with examples including rites of marriage, coming of age, and funerary rites. Most religions have some form of rite for those who wish or are pressured to follow the religion more intimately (including priests, healers, monks, nuns, shamans, etc.)
- Religions explore and attempt to answer life's unanswered questions (What happens before life and after death? What is the meaning of life? Where do lost socks go?)
- Religions generally address, or even attempt to explain the beginning and ending of the world, even if their answer is "no one knows" or "look to science for answers."
- Religions, being social, provide guidelines for morality or ethics and how to best live in the world. These views are usually supported by the mythology and holy texts and may be recorded as part of the dogma.
- Beyond the rites of passage, religions generally have other ritual acts of worship, especially social ones.
- Religions often lay out a set of taboos -- "things which must not be done - ever. They are truly unthinkable." These are typically so ingrained with the culture at large, that even in societies where two very different religions exist, the taboos are often the same. Homosexuality might be wrong, or a sin, but cannibalism is taboo.
- Religions have often defined the calendar, intertwining with the needs of the agrarian, social, or business nature of any individual civilization. At harvest time, for example, many cultures had rites around death and harvest festivals (including praise or even sacrifices to the gods for the bounty). Major weather events like floods, hurricanes or drought are responded to with annual appeasements (by sacrifice or festival) to gods.
To what extent, if at all, each religion has the above features varies widely.
 History of religion (including events and dates)
It is impossible to know when the human experience of religion began. Archeological evidence suggests that the first primitive expressions of religious ideas date to the paleolithic era, 100,000 years ago. The most compelling evidence are burial sites showing a belief in some kind of "afterlife", as evidenced from items found with the deceased, paintings on the body, and placement of the body itself. As with most ancient archeological finds, not all experts agree about the significance.
Some important findings include:
- 230,000 BCE - Pontnewydd cave burial
- 98,000 BCE - Neanderthal burial sites found
- 25,000 BCE - Burials found showing indications of more ceremony in the ornamentation, painting with Red Ocher
The earliest evidence of organized religions begin in the Neolithic era. There is great debate whether religion allows the expansion of social groups from bands to tribes to chiefdom, or if the opposite is true - a set level of social structure is necessary to allow a religion to grow. It is undeniable that virtually every society larger than tribe had a complex religious structure that either empowered the leadership or was itself the governance of the chiefdom. Control of a society appears to have been largely depend upon control of the religion and the associated worldview.
Important Neolithic religious sites and dates:
- 9100-7000 BCE - Göbekli Tepe, generally accepted as a site of worship. It is the oldest site found to date.
- 3100 BCE - Stonehenge: initial construction begins.
The next major step in the development of religious was writing. With writing came more complex ideas about the world, as well as codification of ethical codes and standardization of the mythology. And with writing came the first holy texts.
Religions with written texts:
- 4000-3000 BCE - Sumerians and Assyrians in Ancient Mesopotamia
- 3100 - 332 BCE - Ancient Egypt
- 2400 BCE - The oldest known religious texts, The Pyramid Texts were written
- 2000 BCE - the Epic of Gilgamesh, and by extension the story of Noah, was first written.
- 1700-1100 BCE - the Rigveda of Hinduism
- 1200 BCE - possible date of the oldest fragments of the Torah (generally assumed to be the poetry within the Torah). (The first mention of "Israel" as a nation, is on the Merneptah Stele dated to 1203 BCE.
- 1000 BCE - Avesta, one of the earliest texts of Zoroastrianism
It almost goes without saying that once rules are codified, it becomes easier to control people's behaviors based on those rules; once myths are codified, it can be easier to see your god as the only god, and your "myths" as the only acceptable Truth. This would be especially true for the monotheistic religions in the ancient Near East, where in the name of their God, wars were fought over who's Truth would reign supreme.
 Religion in the West
For the last thousand years, religious life in the West has been dominated by the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the latter two claiming the most followers. These religions have traditionally demanded that their adherents form a tight and at least somewhat homogeneous bloc, professing or following a non-negotiable set of principles handed down by a prophet or the magisterium. When adherents have disagreed, it has lead to splintering of the religion into different denominations and sects.
When the Enlightenment came along and the old theological basis of Christianity came under more rigorous questioning, many within the church responded by emphasizing its social role of caring for the needy and aiming to better the world. This eventually gave rise to the tradition of the Social Gospel, which is still influential today in the mainline Protestant traditions and Liberation theology which is active (sometimes with Vatican disapproval) in the Roman Catholic Church.
More recently, with the continued decline of the organized form of the Abrahamic religions, many fairly non-religious people have again adopted a more individualistic approach to life philosophy, assembling a "personal philosophy" that is a combination of religious, philosophical, and moral concepts that they think or feel works well for them. Others cobble together more explicitly religious ideas and practices along the same lines; this is called variously neopaganism, New Age or cafeteria Christianity depending on the source of the ideas.
Atheist, those that identify as a particular religion but do not believe in the god as well as those who have forgone any expression of religion at all, are a growing part of Western culture.
Perhaps as a direct response to the growth in atheism and those who choose to leave formal religion, coupled with a stronger than ever reliance on science, a minority (in the US, a very loud, powerful minority) of people have chosen to insert their heads where the sun don't shine and attempt to ignore this decline, still insisting that everyone accept every teaching of their religion as absolutely true. These people are known as fundamentalists.
 Religion and science
Historically, many religions, such as Islam and Christianity, have asserted control over people, wealth, and cultural memes. As a result, when science has improved its explanations of reality, the two bodies often experienced friction.
The histories of both Christianity and Islam include moments where they have been the developers of new thought, science, and knowledge, and conversely, there are many times when they have attempted to severely suppress science, philosophy, and freethinking.
Throughout the rest of the world, religions have generally encouraged naturalistic explorations and explanations, found successful ways to integrate the two, or accepted them as different answers for the same question(s). It is difficult for most who grow up in a Western Abrahamic tradition to imagine a religion which does not, at some level, rely on supernatural or miraculous explanations.
 Fundamentalism and science
In the 1920s, the fundamentalist movement within Christianity became more popular. One of the core tenants was that the Bible is literal truth. This is really the first time any Christian or Jewish denomination stated such a premise -- prior to that, most religions and the religious understood that not all things in their holy books were meant to be literal; there were myths, exaggerations for effect, aggrandized history, and poetic symbolism. The basic idea behind the rise of literalism and formal fundamentalism is a growing fear that, as science disproves small details of the Bible, such as the fact that Pi in the Bible is defined as 3.0, not ~3.1415, science will erode the "Truth" value of the Bible, and soon people will jump from doubting mathematical falsities to far more important matters of faith, such as the Divinity of Jesus. This fear that science can and will directly challenge the value of the Bible has lead to an effective War on Science, specifically culminating in a battle against evolution.
However, science and religion are not and have not always been enemies. Below are some examples of clashing and cooperating views of religion and science.
 Examples of science-friendly attitudes within religion
- In the Middle Ages, the Muslim world had a mini-renaissance due to their open-mindedness towards science.
- In the modern era, many Christian denominations accept modern science and its ramifications. In any single situation where science and religion seems to overlap, the idea of Non Overlapping Magisteria, NOMA attempts to shield believers with plausible anchors for growing cognitive dissonance.
- The Roman Catholic Church's acceptance of theistic evolution, admittedly with Adam and Eve involved somewhere in the fall. Most mainstream Protestant religions do not have any problem with evolution. (see Religion and evolution.)
- The Bahai Faith has a tenet expressly concerning the "unity between science and religion." The tenet doesn't go so far as to claim they are the same thing, but insists one is worthless without the other. According to Baha'is, when science and religion irreconcilably disagree, science wins by default.
 Examples of anti-science attitudes within religion
- The Roman Catholic Church's persecution and arrest of Galileo, who harmed nothing but a geocentric worldview.
- Opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution by fundamentalists among his contemporaries and in modern times.
Any religion that requires its followers to accept the Truth of a holy book, religious leader, or set of mythology above "what science says" will necessarily conflict with science. A religion that pushes "faith" over exploration, consideration, thought, and of course study, will likely conflict with science, because those methods of reason often lead to an overall skeptical position.
 See also
- First Great Awakening
- State Religion
- Freedom From Religion Foundation
- Fun:Starting a new religion