Most people are religious. But sometimes it's hard to tell what is a religion, and what isn't. Is Christianity a religion? Is Buddhism a religion? Is being devoted to your favorite sports team a religion?
(I'd answer "yes," "probably," and "no" to those three questions.)
The Patheos site has a story, What is Religion, Anyway?, that contains a definition that makes a lot of sense. Here's how it starts out:
Christian Smith is the Notre Dame sociologist who identified the religion of America’s youth as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and who exposed the bias in the field of sociology. Now he attempts to put the field of the sociology of religion on a more rigorous basis in his new book Religion: What It Is, Why It Works, and Why It Matters.
The book includes many provocative insights, which we might go into later, but I’d like to concentrate first on the question of definition. What is religion, anyway? A field needs to define its subject matter before it can get very far in investigating it, but the sociology of religion has had problems with this.
A religion, says Smith, is not necessarily about God, the afterlife, or a justification for morals. Though some sociologists have approached the question in those terms, not all religions have these things.
Religion cannot even be defined as a particular set of beliefs, since many people practice a religion without necessarily agreeing with all of its beliefs or even knowing very well what they are. He gives the example of children, though the same could be said of other adherents whose knowledge of their religion is sketchy, at best.
Nor is religion to be defined by a sense of transcendence, the meaning of life, a sanction for the culture, the experience of the numinous, personal identity, or community belonging. Again, sociologists of religion have defined religion in these terms, but these are actually effects of religion, not religion itself.
It is possible to find these things apart from religion, to find the meaning of one’s life in political action or to experience transcendence through art or to gain a sense of community through a group of friends. A religion’s vitality–or lack of it–might be assessed by how well it creates–or has ceased to create–such effects.
But the question remains, what is religion? What is a definition that encompasses all religions in all of their diversity? Here is what Prof. Smith comes up with:
“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.” (22)
The “superhuman powers” can be God, gods, or impersonal forces. “In hopes of realizing human goods,” these powers might be prayed to, supplicated, or ritually manipulated; or the practitioners might learn to conform themselves to these forces.
Given this definition, I'd say that a secular Buddhism wouldn't be a religion, since no superhuman powers would be involved. But a supernatural Buddhism that assumes the reality of reincarnation and karmic influences that continue from life to life would be a religion.
Regarding the content of religious beliefs, today on satellite radio I heard a discussion about "fake news" in social media such as Facebook.
The person being interviewed was knowledgeable about what sorts of social media posts grab people's attention. Not surprisingly, posts that fit with someone's point of view, have an emotional "bite" to them, and are shocking or salacious are going to be more likely to be paid attention to.
This comment made me think of religion: "If not constrained by facts, this can make a story more attractive."
So it's no wonder that religions have so much appeal. They aren't at all constrained by facts, being free to make up stories that fit perfectly with what people want to hear.
Worried about dying and being dead forever? No problem, religions have a story for that.
Worried about not being loved by a powerful supernatural being? No problem, religions have a story for that.
Worried about having to decide what is moral? No problem, religions have a story for that.
It's amazing, really, that more people aren't taken aback by the fact that almost universally religions have good news for humanity. Well, us atheists think about this, but few religious people do.
They just accept the stories told by their religion without wondering, "How can it be that everything I want to be true is part of the tales told by my chosen faith?"
Well, because religions aren't constrained by those annoying things called facts. Anybody can come up with a appealing story if they don't have to worry about reality. Fairy tales often end with "And they lived happily ever after."
It's easy to make imaginary stories have happy endings. That's why religions are so popular.