A complex concept with a rich and varied history, Religion covers a wide range of beliefs and practices. It can unite people and bring them together, but it can also be a source of stress and division among individuals and within communities. There are a number of ways that people define Religion, but the vast majority see it as a belief in and worship of a Supreme Being or God. Other religious beliefs include creationism; existentialism; ethics; esotericism; fervor; fetishism; gnosticism; hell; heaven; life after death; miracles; mysticism; penance; prayer; salvation; spirituality; and theology.
It’s also possible to be a “religious person” without being a member of any particular religion. There are plenty of benefits that can be gained from being part of a group that shares certain values, including social support and the ability to handle adversity. People who feel they are religious are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, form strong relationships with others, and develop coping strategies, whether or not they follow specific religious beliefs.
The term has become an umbrella category for a number of diverse groups, from the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) to agnosticism, atheism, and pantheism. There are also many forms of humanism, which have no gods or goddesses at all, and many forms of non-theism such as existentialism, phenomenology, and postmodernism.
Scholars study the different dimensions of Religion in many disciplines. Psychology views religious feelings and experiences and to some extent the myths and symbols that express them; sociology and anthropology look at the institutions of Religion and their relation to its beliefs and values; and literary and other studies explore the meanings of Religious texts and other items. These disciplines are all trying to understand the nature of religion, but it is also important to consider how Religion influences society and what effect it has on individual lives.
Some people argue that because there is so much variety in religions, it’s difficult to make sense of the notion that they all belong to a single category. Others, however, disagree. They point to the fact that, in general, when a term has been used for so long and in so many different contexts, it becomes a cultural type. This is called the prototype theory, which says that a concept has a set of defining properties.
In the early 20th century, Friedrich Heiler, a German professor of religions, promoted a phenomenological approach to studying religion. He argued that all religions have a common foundation, and tried to promote interreligious fellowship through the Religioser Menschheitsbund. He also believed that all religions are ultimately based on the same fundamental experience, and that this commonality enables them to function harmoniously. His ideas were influential in the development of the modern field of Religious Studies. Several other scholars have followed his lead. Emile Durkheim focused on the social functions that religion performs for society, and this perspective continues to influence Sociology of Religion today.