The word religion is used to describe a wide range of beliefs, practices and experiences that are held by people. Almost all human societies practice some form of religion, with the vast majority adhering to one of twenty-plus major religions. Religion is both a cultural phenomenon and a universal human need, helping people cope with the challenges of life, find meaning in their existence, and give them hope for an afterlife.
How religion is defined varies widely, but most scholars agree that a religious belief must be based on some form of supernatural power or activity. It must have a community of believers, a body of teachings, and a ritualized way to express beliefs. Religious beliefs may also be influenced by mental states, which can include emotional or spiritual experiences.
For most of history, religions have been social institutions that shaped culture and were important sources of unity and stability. They can also be a source of conflict, especially when religious traditions are incompatible. The modern world, with its teeming variety of beliefs, philosophies and truth claims, has unique challenges for religion.
Scholars have attempted to define religion in many different ways, some relying on a lexical definition, such as a dictionary description, while others use a more analytical approach based on how the term is generally used. The more scientifically oriented approaches, such as those of sociologists like Max Weber and anthropologists like Durkheim, define religion in terms of its function: it is what gives purpose to life, provides a basis for morality, serves as an agent of social control, helps create community solidarity, promotes psychological and physical health, and motivates people to work for positive social change.
Other scholars, such as philosopher Rodney Needham and psychologist J. Z. Smith, have taken a polythetic approach to the concept of religion. Polythetic approaches treat the idea of a religion as a prototype class. Like a computer program that sorts bacteria by their properties, they look at the set of characteristics that makes up a religion and see if any of them are shared by the different practices that belong to it.
These features include a belief in the afterlife, morality based on divine commandments, communal rituals, and an emphasis on a single, transcendent God or gods. Some of these characteristics are not necessarily a prerequisite for being considered a religion; for example, Christianity, Judaism and Islam count as religions even though they do not all require believers to believe in a single, supreme god. However, some, such as the cults Scientology and Cargo, are not considered religions because they do not have a community of followers or a body of teachings.
A number of other facets are considered when analyzing a religion, such as its origins, its beliefs about the universe and humankind, and its societal influence. However, there are some important questions that have been raised about how these aspects relate to each other. For example, some believe that it is inappropriate to analyze a religion in terms of mental states because the resulting analysis can lead to discrimination against certain groups, such as atheists or women.