Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that provides its followers with an object (or objects) of devotion, a moral code, and a belief in something supernatural. Most religions also offer their followers with a set of religious institutions, sacred rites and rituals, a hierarchy of priestly roles, holy books, and sacred days or places.
While many different religions exist in the world, there is considerable agreement about what constitutes a religion. For example, all religions deal with some aspect of salvation, either in a literal sense (such as going to heaven after death in Christianity) or in a more symbolic sense (such as escaping from suffering into nirvana in Buddhism). All religions have some form of worship and prayer and most have sacred texts or books.
There are two basic theories about the origin of religion. One theory, supported by anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and people’s origins), is that humankind created spirituality in response to a biological or cultural need. Other anthropologists believe that humans have always been preoccupied with the thought of their own mortality and, therefore, created religion in order to find a way to avoid death or at least to go on after death.
Both theories have a profound impact on human societies and the lives of their believers. Many religious beliefs are deeply personal and emotional. They give people a reason to get up in the morning and, when things go wrong, they provide a comforting sense of hope and guidance. In addition, religions can provide a framework for social behavior and are often responsible for the creation of laws and institutions that govern society.
Because of the importance of religion in most people’s lives, there has been much academic debate about what defines a religion. Some academics have pushed for an abandonment of the concept of religion altogether and others have sought to redefine it.
The definition of religion is an important issue for any academic who deals with the subject. There are a variety of different definitions that have been used in the past and, like other concepts such as culture or literature, the meaning of religion has shifted over time.
A popular approach today is to think of religion as a taxon, a grouping of social practices that share certain characteristics. This approach, called a polythetic view, sorts social formations according to their properties rather than relying on specific, necessary and sufficient criteria.
There are some who argue that to define religion in this way is a mistake and that it is preferable to understand the concept of religion by examining the structures and institutions that produce its effects. These scholars are sometimes called structuralists. Another argument, which has become increasingly common in the field of sociology, is that to understand religion, it is necessary to shift attention away from hidden mental states and toward the visible institutional structures that produce them. This is known as a naturalistic approach.