Religion is a worldwide phenomenon, with the vast majority of people on Earth practicing some form. Though it is difficult to define, most scholars agree that it includes beliefs in supernatural beings and a focus on spiritual well-being. Religious belief often involves a system of rituals and moral codes that are meant to guide behavior and influence the course of human events. Some religions also involve the practice of prayer or meditation.
Many theories exist about why religion exists and what its purpose is. Some, like those of anthropologists and scientists who study human societies, believe that religion developed in response to either a biological or a cultural need. Those who support the biological origin theory of religion argue that it emerged when human beings became self-aware and realized they would eventually die. This realization, they say, caused human beings to create a spirituality to help them cope with this fact and to find meaning in life.
Others, including sociologists and historians, take a more functional view of religion. They contend that religion has several important social functions, such as providing a sense of belonging, reinforcing social unity, and influencing political decisions and attitudes. These perspectives emphasize the importance of understanding how religion works in society and how it can contribute to social problems, such as inequality.
Some researchers have criticized the academic study of religion, arguing that the field is too subjective and prone to inferences and biases. This criticism has led to the development of new, more objective approaches to studying religion, such as the use of experimental methods and quantitative analysis. These techniques can be used to examine the effects of religion on a variety of variables, such as mental health, physical well-being, and economic behavior.
While there is no one right way to study religion, some suggestions include reading the Holy Books of different faiths, and observing how religious communities are structured. It is also helpful to talk with people of different religions and ask them questions about their beliefs.
A common misconception is that there is a single, objective definition of religion. However, most definitions of religion are open-polythetic, meaning that they allow for a range of properties to be included in the category. For example, Paul Tillich defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values—even if that concern does not involve belief in unusual realities.
The wide range of properties that can be included in the concept of religion makes it difficult to compare religions. Some attempts to do so have been criticized for leaving out religious forms that are not formally organized or recognized, such as certain political ideologies. For this reason, some scholars advocate a closed polythetic approach that restricts the set of properties that will be considered to make up the category. This might lead to the discovery of patterns within the class or of correlations between the properties that can serve as a basis for explanatory theories.