Religion is an ideology, meaning "... that part of culture which is actively concerned with the establishment and defense of patterns of beliefs and values" (Geertz, 1964, p. 64). But it is clearly different, in the nature of its claims, from all other ideologies we know, such as left-wing or right-wing world views in politics. Religion as an ideology involves the individual in a unique commitment and a unique network of relationships, real and imagined. The irreducible belief core common to all religions contains the belief in spirit entities inhabiting an invisible world, and our relationship with them (Beit-Hallahmi, 1989). The working definition of religion used here is the straightforward everyday description of religion as a system of beliefs in divine or superhuman powers, and ritual practices directed towards such powers (Argyle & Beit-Hallahmi, 1975).

It is the premise of every religion—and this premise is religion's defining characteristic—that souls, supernatural beings, and supernatural forces exist. Furthermore, there are certain minimal categories of behavior, which, in the context of the supernatural premise, [emphasis in the original] are always found in association with one another and which are the substance of religion itself. (Wallace, 1966, p. 52)

Similarly, William James describes a separation of the visible and the invisible worlds, which parallels the separation between sacred and profane:

Religion has meant many things in human history: but when from now onward I use the word I mean to use it in the supernaturalist sense, as declaring that the so called order of nature, which constitutes this world's experience, is only one portion of the total universe, and that there stretches beyond this visible world an unseen world of which we now know nothing positive, but in its relation to which the true significance of our present mundane life consists. A man's religious faith ... means for me essentially his faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found explained. (James, 1897/1956, p. 51)

We will use the presence of the supernatural premise, or the supernatural assumption, as the touchstone for defining certain human behaviors as religious.

All religions, as ideologies, promote the idea of an invisible world inhabited by various creatures, gods, angels, and devils, which control much of what happens to us. And if we believe in the existence of the unseen world, then religion as a social institution is for us the mediator between the invisible supernatural world and the visible, human, and natural world; but that institution, with the behaviors tied to it, does not exist without the belief in the supernatural.

While this description may be too narrow to include some traditions sometimes referred to as religious, it is broad enough to cover what to most human beings is connoted by religion through their concrete historical experience. This definition has the advantages of being concrete, historical, and close to the direct experience of the proverbial person in the street, the common believer. The behavioral definition of religion has to be close to that which real people experience and recognize immediately, and such substantive definitions are in line with the traditions of scholarship in the study of religion. The universality of our definition is based on the universality of beliefs in the world of the spirits. Despite the cultural variations and the claims for uniqueness, there is a universal common denominator to religion. The description of supernaturalism is valid not just for westerners, but also for Shintoists, Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, and members of thousands of other religious groups.

While religion is an institution and a belief system, what we measure in the behavior of individuals is religiosity, which is the adherence to a particular belief system—any one of the 10,000 religions currently in existence. This does not imply, of course, that individuals have much choice in matters of religion. In 99% of cases, young humans are successfully taught to accept the tenets of whatever faith their parents hold.

Religiosity is a continuous, rather than a discrete, variable. The expression of religious beliefs is the main measure of religiosity, which is then related to other beliefs, and to psychological and behavioral indicators. Religiosity is not randomly distributed in any population, as beliefs and attitudes are correlated with the primordial social roles of age, sex, and social status (Beit-Hallahmi & Argyle, 1997).

Individuals follow cultural scripts for religion, as for other behaviors. But we can still point to some generalizations or even universals. Despite the cross-cultural and historical evidence for the diversity of religious beliefs, there are also some universal features in terms of the common belief system. Gods are envisaged as invisible spiritual forces with some of the properties of persons, who are good and powerful. They are usually thought of as male. Religion is universally claimed as the source of, and the authority for, moral codes, impulse control, and social power arrangements. Women are everywhere more committed to religion, and the family is everywhere sacralized.

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