Religion encompasses all human beliefs and practices that address the ultimate questions of life. It includes all human attempts to understand the nature of reality and the place of humans in it, to establish relationships with the divine, and to achieve a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It also includes all human rituals and other activities that are designed to express a religious belief or worldview.
The word religion derives from the Latin verb religio, which means “religious faith,” and it refers to the entire range of religious attitudes and behavior. Religion is a complex phenomenon, and it is not easy to define in terms of either beliefs or behaviors. Nevertheless, most people agree that there are some things that all religions have in common: They all believe in a transcendent power; they all involve some sort of worship; and they all promote certain moral behavior. The term religion also includes those activities that are not regarded as sacred but that play an important role in the lives of people.
Scholars have developed a number of different theories about the origin of religion. Some, like anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and human origins), support the idea that religion evolved from either a biological or a cultural need. Those who support a biological explanation for the origin of religion suggest that as humans became self-aware and were able to look into the future, they realized that they would eventually die. Thus, they created religion to help them cope with this realization and to provide them with a hope for survival after death.
Others, such as German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-83) viewed religion as a response to social conditions. They believed that religion reflected and reinforced social inequality and the status quo. Marx went so far as to say that religion was “the opium of the masses.”
In modern times, scholars have stressed the importance of approaching religion as a subject for scientific inquiry. This approach to the study of religion is referred to as neutral description, and it requires that researchers analyze all of the evidence without imposing any of their own biases on the findings. This objective method has helped to prepare the way for more modern developments in the study of religion, including the growth of scholarly fields such as archaeology and anthropology.
A final factor that has contributed to the rise of the scientific study of religion is the growing globalization of societies and the availability of information about a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices. The development of international organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO has made it possible for scholars to compare and contrast religious ideas and traditions from around the world. This research has also contributed to a greater understanding of the role that religion plays in people’s lives. It has shown that while religion can inspire peace and harmony, it can also foster conflict and violence.