Eight years ago, I decided I would take Religion 101, otherwise known as "Introduction to Religion." As a South Carolinian who grew up attending a variety of Christian churches, I assumed we would study Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I expected the class to be broken into units, where each unit focused on on of the previously mentioned religions. You have probably already surmised that this is not what happened at all. The class didn't talk about any religion specifically, but instead focused on the concept of religion itself and how it plays a role in our society. This class marked the first step in the direction of answers to all my questions.
Religion is defined by Dictionary.com as:
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Interestingly enough this could include science.
What this class did for me, above all else, was force me to think about religion in general. By laying aside the details of individual religions and focusing of the topic of religion. When you stop and take an honest look at the world you can conclude that religion has great power; it can persuade people to do wonderful things, but it can also persuade people to do terrible things. Often, man uses his own desires to interpret religious texts and abuses the name of God (or gods) to gain power.
Generally, when people think of religion, they think of doctrines and practices, perhaps even scriptures pertaining to that religion. More often that not, people follow doctrines and practices without stopping to question their purpose and connection to the beliefs. Sometimes this takes the form of people going through motions without actually having a belief, but other times it takes the form of carrying out motions or forming beliefs that were never meant to be a part of the religion.
Following the thinking brought on by Religion 101, I continue to study religion in general and to look at its effect of society historically.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. James 1:27 KJV