The Concept of Religion


The concept of religion has a wide variety of meanings. Some scholars use it to refer to a specific set of social practices, such as those practiced by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Others, such as anthropologists and sociologists, use it to describe a class of social formations that share a set of beliefs and practices. Still others consider the concept to be a taxon that includes a number of distinct but similar categories or types, such as those of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism. In short, the term religion is a generic term that describes many different things, and it is often difficult to distinguish one from another.

Most attempts at analyzing religion have been monothetic, meaning that they have focused on the idea that every member of a certain class will have a particular property or set of properties that defines it. More recently, however, polythetic approaches have begun to appear. These approaches recognize that a class can consist of multiple groups with different sets of properties, but they also acknowledge that the property sets may overlap in some cases.

The earliest forms of religion grew out of human curiosity about the universe and its workings and out of fear of uncontrollable forces in nature. They offered hope that the world could be changed, that there was life after death, and that a creator god would watch over humanity.

Today, the world’s largest religions are Christianity (about 2 billion followers worldwide), Islam (1.65 billion), and Hinduism (about 900 million). They are followed by smaller numbers of people who practice Judaism, Sikhism, and Bahai Faith. Those religions share many beliefs and practices, which can be grouped into several broad categories, such as creation myths, prophets, holy books, sacred texts, rituals, and a system of morality.

Anthropologists have suggested that early religion arose as an attempt to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as the weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting. Magic, which is an effort to directly manipulate the environment, and religion, which offers supplications to gods or spirits for aid, are two examples of such attempts.

Some scientists, including psychologists and neuroscientists, argue that religious beliefs can be explained by evolutionary biology. They say that humans are hard-wired to seek out meaning in their lives and that the ancestors of modern-day people lived in a more tribal society where a sense of community and shared values was more important than it is in today’s societies, which have become increasingly complex and globalized.

Sociologists, meanwhile, suggest that the development of religion was partly driven by human needs for self-affirmation and social support. They note that people who are religious tend to be more socially and economically well-adjusted than those who are not, and that the practice of religion reduces illegitimate children, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, low self-esteem, and prejudice. They also say that religion is associated with higher levels of empathy and morality.