Traditionally, Religion is understood to be a taxon for sets of social practices, and its paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. It can also be applied to forms of life that are specific to a region, such as the religions of China or ancient Rome or those of Japan (Shinto and Hockey), or that is particular to a group of people such as the Cherokee religion.
There is an ongoing debate about the definition of religion, and its practitioners come from many disciplines including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and psychology. The debate is marked by disagreement over what properties a form of life must possess to be considered Religion, and over how those characteristics should be classified or organized into a classification system.
The debate is also marked by a sharp division between what scholars call “monothetic” and “polythetic” approaches to the concept of Religion. The former treat the category of Religion as a lexical term that is defined by an essentialist theory of what constitutes a religion, and the latter reject this stipulative approach in favor of one that defines the concept based on the function a religion can perform in a person’s life, or as the way a person organizes his or her values.
Most people agree that, in the past and present, religion has played an important role in human society. It can give people a sense of community, moral purpose, and meaning. It can also create social cohesion and encourage altruism, compassion, and forgiveness. It can also inspire personal and collective beliefs in immortality, an afterlife, and a loving creator who watches over humanity. It is also widely accepted that religion can be a source of conflict, with groups and individuals willing to persecute, kill, or go to war over religious differences.
A key point in the debate over the nature of Religion is that its existence is a result of natural human curiosity about the unknown and fear of uncontrollable forces. It is generally accepted that religious belief and practice developed out of this curiosity and fear, and that it evolved into a desire for hope—hope that there would be an afterlife, that one’s life had meaning, that there was a kind creator who watched over humans, or that the universe had a purpose. Many scholars have argued that this evolutionary process is at the root of the need for Religion in human societies and that it is an intrinsic part of the human condition. There is also considerable research supporting the claim that Religion helps to alleviate human suffering and reduce social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, family dissolution, crime, delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, health problems, and prejudice. For all of these reasons, a clear and consistent definition of Religion is important to the study of religion. However, the ubiquity of Religion in human societies makes the development of a meaningful definition challenging.