What Is Religion?

Religion is a large and diverse collection of beliefs. There are at least 20 major religions in the world, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Some 6.5 billion people around the globe participate in some form of religion. Religion seems to be a universal experience and need.

One theory suggests that religion developed as a means of controlling uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as weather and animal behavior. Anthropologists, the scientists who study human culture, suggest that early religion involved attempts to manipulate these uncontrollable aspects of the environment through magic and supplication. Magic tries to make the environment directly subject to human will, by manipulating physical objects. For example, early humans may have drawn images of animals on cave walls in hopes of assuring success in hunting. Supplication, on the other hand, tries to control the environment by appealing to a higher power. For example, some religions believe in angels and gods that will help human beings overcome challenges.

Many religions include a set of moral teachings that give members guidance in the ways they should live their lives. Some of these teachings also include an emphasis on personal morality, and a belief that there is a divine plan or purpose for the universe. Other religions, such as Scientology, rely on non-human entities, such as computers or aliens, to guide their followers.

The study of religion has been influenced by various philosophies, and in particular by the phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology, as a philosophical approach, catalogs observable features of religion much like a zoologist might categorize animals or an entomologist might categorize insects. One important aspect of phenomenological studies is that it is possible to identify patterns in the way that different religions behave and what role they play in society.

A common definition of religion defines it as whatever makes a group of people feel part of a moral community. This is often referred to as a “functional” definition of religion, and it was popularized by Emile Durkheim. Another functional approach is used by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as any dominant concern that serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities.

There is little agreement about the definition of religion, but there is considerable evidence that most religions do function to create and protect a sense of community among their followers. Most religions also offer people a chance to attain some of their most important goals, both within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, and more charitable way of living) or in the next one (through rebirth or resurrection). In addition, religions can give them the means to cope with death.