The word “religion” refers to a wide range of phenomena ranging from Tibetan Buddhism to the Prosperity Gospel. As a result, religion has accrued a “bewildering variety of definitions”. This essay, rather than asking the ontological question – “What kind of thing is religion?” – looks at religion epistemologically, asking what religion enables people to know. The resulting exploration suggests that religion is part of the process by which human groups come to know and adapt to the powerful, often-mysterious forces that produce awe and terror. By looking at how societies at different levels of social complexity have responded to the crises produced by these forces, the author suggests that the habits of mind that would become science and philosophy, as well as religion, evolved as the way those societies have adapted to existential crises, especially in times of rapid, widespread change.
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