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Three fundamental themes found in nearly all religions are:
1) There is a higher power. God, Gods, spirits, or even the power of an idea which may guide human thought and action.
2) There is a life after death. Anthropologists speculate that early man began to develope religion around the time they began to bury their dead. Burying a deceased relative conveys a belief in an afterlife. Many religions hold that all creatures have eternal souls which possess infinite bodies--reincarnation. Monotheistic religions believe in reincarnation as well, but they add the qualifier "One must believe in God in order to have a life after death".
3) There are realms other than the physical. Western religions focus on realms of Heaven and Hell, while Asian religions speak of a massive spirit world.
I would argue that religions don't need to contain a higher power, an afterlife, or realms other than the physical. It seems that religion, most fundamentally, is a framework of beliefs about the world and oneself. This framework is used to interpret experiences. For example, an atheist, a Christian, and a Buddhist would interpret the death of a loved one very differently. I would say the three main concepts of all religions are answers to the three basic philosophical questions:
1) How do we know (i.e., epistemology)? This concerns beliefs about how we gain knowledge (about the world and ourselves)
2) What is real or what exists (i.e., metaphysics)? This concerns beliefs about what, if anything, is eternal (the material universe, God, Brahman, both the material and spiritual worlds)
3) What ought we to do (i.e., ethics)? This concerns beliefs about how we, as humans, ought to act?
Stephen Prothero in God Is Not One summarizes religion as a series of problems and solutions.
Atheism - superstition, reason
Buddhism - suffering, nirvana
Chinese Buddhism - chaos, relationships
Christianity - sin, salvation
Hinduism - rebirth, liberation
Islam - pride, submission
Judaism - exile, return
Yoruba - looking for destiny, finding destiny
glgoodrich, you are right. I should have thought of religion beyond just the mainstream sects most often thought of. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz would agree with your definition of religion: it was he who claimed that religion is simply Man's way of understanding their place in the Universe.
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