Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and ethics that gives meaning to life, establishes moral values, encourages social cooperation and stability, serves as a source of psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for social change. A central theme of religion is the Creator-creature relationship, and all the major world religions focus on this theme. The study of religion encompasses a broad range of topics and disciplines, including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, and theology.
The term “religion” is derived from the Latin word religio, meaning “belief in a higher power.” The concept of religion is as ancient as humankind. Early civilizations, such as the Nile River valley in Egypt and Mesopotamia, developed religions around 3,000 bce, with myths and stories about their gods and goddesses, rituals, and codes of conduct. These early religions were polytheistic.
As civilizations and cultures grew more complex, the religions also grew more elaborate, with many different gods and goddesses in the pantheon, and stories of their adventures. These myths, along with the rituals and rules of behavior, became the basis for the religions that developed into the major religions of today.
In addition to their spiritual significance, the ancient religious beliefs provided a sense of cohesion and community. The Greek philosopher Thales (6th century bce) believed that water and fire are the first substance, while Heraclitus (5th century bce) claimed that the controlling principle of the universe is the eternal, unchanging logos (or mind). These beliefs helped humans feel a unity with nature and their neighbors and coworkers, and they strengthened ties among members of a tribe or village.
Over time, these religions evolved into systems of belief that resemble modern religions, with certain key characteristics:
Religious belief often includes an explanation for the origin and development of the universe and of mankind. It is also common for a religious belief to teach that there is a way to attain salvation, or release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
In addition, most religions have sacred places and objects, rituals, a concept of the afterlife, sacred writings, a clergy or priesthood, and a group of believers that form a community. Sacred experiences, such as crying, singing, screaming, or trancelike states, are sometimes part of religious experience.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a new movement in the academic study of religion was initiated by the development of anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and other scientific disciplines that gave rise to the field of comparative religion. This new movement focused on the study of religion in its cultural context, recognizing that religious traditions are as diverse as the people who practice them. Today, the study of religion is an important component of any comprehensive education, as it provides knowledge of global contexts and encourages civic participation.