What Is Religion?

Religion is a belief system that teaches believers a way of life. It includes cultural beliefs, worldviews, texts, prophecies, revelations, and morals that have spiritual meaning to its followers. It also usually includes sacred rites and rituals, holy places, symbols, prayer, meditation, and trances.

Academic approaches to studying religion focus on the relationship between religion and other aspects of human society. Anthropologists, phenomenologists, and sociologists study the nature of religion and its evolution through history. Psychologist and neuroscientists try to understand why humans have religious feelings and experiences. These approaches are called “substantive” because they define religion in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality.

It is not easy to agree on a definition of religion. Some definitions include only a belief in a god or a supernatural being, while others take a more inclusive approach. Many scholars believe that the term’religion’ covers any organized set of beliefs and practices that unite a group of people into a moral community. This approach is called a functional definition of religion, and it was developed by Emile Durkheim.

The development of religion probably grew out of human curiosity about death and the supernatural, and from fear of uncontrollable forces in the environment. It was an attempt to turn this curiosity and fear into hope: a desire for immortality or life after death, for a loving creator who would watch over humanity, and for a purpose for human existence.

Almost all religions have some sort of mythology that tells the story of how the religion came into being and its role in the universe. Early religions may have been based on tribal totems, ancestor worship, or beliefs in guardian spirits and gods. By the time civilizations arose along the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia around 3,000 bce, religion had become a complex process of organization and worship. It included not only a belief in one or more gods and goddesses but a pantheon of deities, sacred rites and rituals, a clergy or priesthood to lead it, moral codes, and holy books.

Today, most of the world’s religions are monotheistic: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. A few major religions are polytheistic, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. A variety of smaller religions are practiced throughout the world, including Baha’i, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. In addition to these, there are neopagan and pagan groups that worship ancient Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, and other pagan gods. These various religions often mix and match with each other to create a hybrid of beliefs that is known as folk religion. There is also a strong underground movement that believes in magic and witchcraft.