If one wanted to define a particular religion, one possibility would be to describe what its devotees believe and the rituals they include in the practice of their religion; but, if one wanted to define the essence of religion in general, he would have to try to identify characteristics that are common to all religions everywhere; but, if one wanted to define religion in terms of why religions exist at all and why they seem to exist in all human societies, then he would have to define religion in terms of the fundamental existential needs of humans that arise from the unique capability of the human brain to be self-consciously aware, to “re-present” experience with manipulatable words and images and create a “perceived reality” in which it lives and interprets itself and its world.
Humans did not evolve with genetic instructions which told them what kind of a world they lived in and how they should live in it and with one another. They did evolve with a brain capable of accumulating sensory information about themselves and their world, organizing that information into abstract, manipulatable, interpretive constructs, and creating the perceived realities in which they lived. These perceived realities contained the information which formed the core of the cultures which were the affective control systems of the many different kinds of societies humans have created and in which they have lived. The many different ways humans have devised to live together in societies, that is, their cultures, have usually been regarded by the members of that society as the absolute right and true way to live, usually provided to them by some sort of god or gods. However, regardless of how sacred, absolute and inviolable a particular society believed their culture to be, the ways in which humans have perceived themselves and their world, throughout anthropic time, have changed markedly and so have the specifics of their cultural information. In other words, religions are adaptive control systems.
Religion is not a “thing.” It is a psychosocial functional process and its underlying purpose is to achieve connection with unknown and the unknowable powers of the “perceived world” and connect humans with humans in mutually supportive relations. Science is what humans have learned to do to create an accurate frame of reference and fill it with testable information for understanding their world. Religion is what humans do to create a frame of “reverence” within which they can experience a sense of ultimate reunion within themselves and with the world as they perceive it. Religions are process systems which the participating societies have adjusted and readjusted over time as their situations have changed.
I see no way to define the essential nature of religion, assuming that there is such, by working from the forms, activities, and beliefs of particular religions. There are so much varieties of beliefs in a god, or gods, or the abyss in the stead of a god and in the variety of specifics from vestal virgins to temple prostitutes, from isolated hermits to suicide bombers, from the shoeless Jesus to the Pope, from the simple message of the Buddha to the elaborate mythology of Mahayana Buddhism, etc., that I can’t imagine any taxonomic approach that would not be just a list of everything having little significance for understanding the essential nature of religion and the human needs which give rise to it, other than documenting its amazing diversity.
I arrive at these conclusions by setting aside every claim to extrasensory, revelatory, and supernatural sources for information about humans and their world, all of the personal psychological reasons (and there are many) which may lie at the root of the specifics of some, or all religions, along with the historical reasons for particular religions arising at particular times. All of these are legitimate concerns when trying to define and understand what religion has become; but, understanding all of them will not explain why humans found it necessary to develop what we call religions as an essential part of their social organizations. Having set all that aside, I find that there are two fundamental existential requirements for any organized system to exist and survive, be it physical, biological, or psychosocial.
The first requirement is a binding force or field which pulls potential parts together and binds them into either a stable state or a successfully functioning process. In the case of humans, this would be a sufficiently strong emotional participation in the collective consciousness of a group usually including an object of supreme devotion. The second requirement is a sufficiently strong binding connection among the participating parts of the inclusive system. In the case of humans, this would be a sufficiently strong emotional connection and personal identification with the other members of the group.
What I have just referred to as existential requirements appear also in the great religions of the world as spiritual requirements for believers, i.e., to love their object of supreme devotion unconditionally, be it a god, gods, nature, universe, or ultimate nothingness, and show their fellow humans the same care and concern they desire for themselves. Humans have known and recorded these spiritual goals for thousands of years; but, their civilizations have never come close to attaining them.
The problem for humans has always been that nothing, not even their religions, tell them how, given the level of psychological complexity and the influence of the more primitive parts of the brain, to bring themselves into conformity with these ideals and to create a society that fulfils those requirements well enough to enable humans to live peaceful, contented, and productive lives. What should the “civil” in civilization mean? Is it a characteristic of existing civilizations or something to attain?
Why is the first story, after the creation of the Adam and Eve about fratricide, the murder of Able by his brother Cain? Why is this human violence followed by the story of God’s violence annihilating humanity, except for Noah and his family; and, that followed by the story of God limiting the communication capabilities of humans by confusing their tongues at the Tower of Babel to block their overweening desire to be equal to the gods? Why did the God in the early parts of the Bible instruct Joshua to invade the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey,” and kill every man woman and child living there?
Why is it so natural and easy for humans of all ages to fall into anger, hostility and rage while it takes years of spiritual discipline to find love, peace, and joy? Part of the answer to these questions is that we were born with “lower” brains which are part of our primitive hostile and defensive survival equipment while the potentialities of our ”higher” brains for reason and “higher” emotions have to be cultivated over time. Another part of the answer is that, while our scientific method has given us an understanding of the physical/biological parts of ourselves and our world, while and that information has been spreading very rapidly around the world, we have been left with a fundamental fear of facing, with a similar objective honesty, our psychosocial problems; and, consequently, the understanding of ourselves has lagged far behind. In the light of all this, I have to define religion, in addition, as the struggle of humanity to find, clarify, and actualize their best potentials for the highest levels of “civility” which will be an ongoing process in need continuous redefinition.