Religion is a collection of ideas, feelings and beliefs that unites people in a shared pursuit of spirituality. It also often involves a code of conduct or morality and a set of values that guide human behavior. Those who practice religion believe in one or more gods, spirits and powers beyond the realm of human control. Most religions also have sacred rites and rituals, sacred books and a clergy or priesthood that administers them. Religious practices may also involve places, symbols and days that are considered holy to the religion.
The study of religion is important because it enables humans to understand the world around them and the many different types of differences that exist amongst humans. It is also important to have a better understanding of the different cultures that make up the world’s population, as well as the similarities that unify them.
Although it is impossible to give a definition of religion, there are some basic guidelines that can be used as signposts for its analysis. One of the most important is the concept of a religion as an organized system of beliefs and activities that includes rituals, ethics and scriptures. Another important anthropological signpost is the idea of religion as an attempt to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather or pregnancy and childbirth, through magic or prayer.
Most modern scholars use a polythetic approach to the concept of religion, which allows for different instances of the term to share certain defining properties without having to have all of them. This is in contrast to the classical view of concepts, whereby every instance accurately described by a concept must have all of its defining properties.
Whether monothetic or polythetic, most attempts to analyze the concept of religion today treat it as a kind of taxon that sorts social types. This approach is similar to how we think about other abstract concepts like “literature”, “democracy” and even the concept of culture itself.
One of the most interesting questions about religion is how it developed. Anthropologists generally agree that the early development of religion was a result of humans trying to control aspects of their environment over which they have no direct control, such as the weather or the success of hunting. Using magic to directly manipulate the environment, as in drawing animals on cave walls to ensure good hunting, was a primitive form of religion. Appeals to a higher power, gods and goddesses, were a more sophisticated way of controlling the environment through religion. This evolved into the state religions that now govern the majority of the world’s populations.