Religion is a social system of beliefs and practices that creates a sense of belonging to a community and a shared meaning of life. It also functions as an agent of social control, a means for moral instruction, and a source of inspiration for social change. Throughout human history, all cultures have practiced some form of religion. Despite the variety of faiths, all share certain common features: (a) a belief in supernatural powers and (b) an attempt to propitiate or please these powers.
In the past, most definitions of religion focused on a belief in an unusual kind of reality. This approach is called a “substantive” definition. It is contrasted with functional definitions, which define religion as a set of practices that unite a group into a moral community. Emile Durkheim’s (1912) classic formulation is one example of a functional definition. Recent scholars have developed a new understanding of religion. They have moved away from the idea that religion is a substance, and instead treat it as a “family-resemblance concept” that is always present in all societies.
This shift in focus has led to a wide variety of definitions for the term religion. Some social scientists have used a sociological lens to examine the role of religion in society, with an emphasis on the social inequalities that it can reinforce and perpetuate. Others, however, have taken a more philosophical view. They have drawn on the work of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), John Locke (1632-1704), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1874-1900) to explore issues that are central to the study of religion.
Anthropologists have suggested that the development of religion was in part a result of humans’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather patterns, successful pregnancy and birth, and success at hunting. They did this in two ways: through manipulation, which is done through magic; and through supplication, which is the process of praying to gods or goddesses.
Speculation about the origins of religion have also been stimulated by research on prehistoric man. Archaeologists, who study the remains of people from the past through bones, teeth, and other artifacts, have uncovered evidence of rituals associated with the death of a person in some cultures. Paleontologists have even found burials of humans who no longer exist, including some that were carefully prepared to include food and tools.
Different academic disciplines use these definitions to study religious traditions. Psychology and sociology study the experiences and feelings that people have about religion; anthropology looks at the institutions that make up a religion and the cultural context in which they exist; and history studies a particular religion’s development through its artifacts, texts, and ideas. Each of these perspectives offers a unique view on how to define religion. In addition, many scholars have drawn on the work of philosophy to help sort out important differences between the different theories. These arguments are often contentious and complex.