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What IS religion?

There is, without a doubt, an intensifying debate between advocates of religion and those opposed. A good place to start in this debate is what we mean when we say "religion." A social scientist might construe religion as "a set of beliefs and practices that are grounded in a particular iteration of morality." I think this definition is insufficient. We need to explore and be clear on what religious people mean by religion, otherwise, no fruitful conversation will ever occur among the participants of one such debate!

To aggravate the issue, it is absolutely true that there are many who refer to themselves as "religious," but are unaware of the basic premises and arguments of religious philosophy - this doesn't add to the debate either.

Both sides of the question consider the matter of great importance. There is a call for an intelligent discussion between religion and common culture - and there's no better place to have it then TED!

Would anyone like to take a stab at defining religion?


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  • Oct 20 2012: The human brain is the topic we should be most concerned with when addressing questions of religion. As an organ it generates and manipulates representations in the form of physical states and through this process generates a transect of the reality we inhabit.

    The brain receives raw sense data and interprets it based on hardwired biases (like high attention being paid to bright colors or high aversion towards unexpected loud noises). One of the biases that is built into our brain is a high preference to human subjects. This makes a great deal of sense given our natural history of evolving as social creatures. In fact it seems that we have evolved a system of intuitions about the operations of others' mental faculties. This bias is not perfect, however, because it does not only make inferences about human subjects. This personhood module fires in response to almost any set of "contingent" behaviors. Objects in free fall are handled by our intuitive physics. Things which move apparently under their own power get handed to the personhood module. This has allowed us to outsmart potential prey and predators as well as form tight nit social groups, because we are able to think about thinking.

    This ties back to religion, because religion is an extension of our bias towards anthromorphism. We are capable of mistaking that the universe must have a human face because it seems to be a never ending series of contingent events. The human brain loves patterns, but in the absence of any discernible pattern, it will impose order onto the outside world. This is exemplified by our ability to "see" figures in clouds. We do not literally "see" the face in the clouds, but BECAUSE THERE IS NO PATTERN, we invent them.

    With the advent of written language we have seen the codification of social norms, natural history, and metaphysics in terms of anthroporphism reinterpreted a multiplicity of times which is explained by their underlying etiology being individual human anthropomorphism.

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