Breaking the Spell

The concept or, if one prefers, the “phenomenon” of religion is evidently somewhat indeterminate. It has clear instances: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so on; but, and this is why “and so on” is not very helpful, there are less clear cases, such as Taoism, and progressively more doubtful ones, for example Falun Gong, the Aquarian Foundation, and Scientology.

The Web site lists more than four thousand “religions, churches, denominations, religious bodies, faith groups, tribes, cultures, movements, ultimate concerns, etc.”-notice again the terminal drift into vagueness marked by “etc.” Even restricting oneself to more or less clear cases, though, there are vast numbers of religious believers throughout the world. Indeed, of the 6.5 billion humans on the globe, about 80 percent belong to recognized religions, about 33 percent are Christians, holding allegiance to teachings only formulated quite recently in the history of humankind, and half of the latter are Roman Catholics. Arguably nothing compares with religion as a domain of commitment, and no other extensive commitment so unifies humanity, even when it divides it. What then explains the origins of religion and its power to have and to hold the allegiance of so many?

One answer is that religion gives expression to a universal need to acknowledge and respond to a sense of cosmic order and what theologians often call human “...

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About the Author

John Haldane is director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion (Duckworth) and Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical (Routledge).