Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that people use to deal with ultimate concerns about life and death. These concerns may be expressed in terms of a relationship with or attitudes toward gods, spirits, the broader human community or nature, and they are often based on a belief that certain texts or individuals have scriptural status. Although scholars have offered many definitions of religion, a common definition is that it consists of a person’s relationship to what he or she regards as sacred, divine, holy, absolute, spiritual or utterly transcendent.
Religious beliefs, practices and observances may be as different from one another as the stars in the sky or the colors of the rainbow. However, there are common themes that run through all religions, including love of one’s family and friends, respect for one’s fellow human beings, and moral and ethical behavior.
The term religion is generally understood to refer to any system of beliefs and practices that is regarded as holy, sacred, divine or spiritual and entails devotional practices, prayer, meditation and other forms of worship. It also encompasses religious philosophies and teachings, rites, rituals, observances and institutions.
Interest in the study of religion has a long history, beginning with ancient authors such as Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus. Max Weber, a founding figure in sociology and the author of The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, made the study of religion a focus of his career. Emile Durkheim, who explored suicide in his classic Suicide, also influenced the development of sociology of religion.
In the twentieth century, phenomenology became an important approach to studying religion. The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, studied religion in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. Phenomenology is a method of investigation that involves careful observation and detailed description. Husserl believed that a scientific approach to religion would help overcome the anthropocentric bias of traditional disciplines.
One result of a phenomenological approach to religion is that a person’s concept of religion will differ depending on the individual and culture. Some scholars, such as Paul Tillich, have used functionalist approaches to define religion, arguing that it is whatever a person’s dominant concern serves to organize his or her values and provide orientation for life. Other scholars, such as Linda de Muckadell, have rejected stipulative definitions of religion, arguing that they force scholars to accept whatever definition is provided and cannot be critiqued.
To understand more about the world’s religions, it can be helpful to read books on the topic and visit websites devoted to specific faiths. It can also be a good idea to seek out friends and neighbors who are members of different religious groups. This can lead to discussions about beliefs and traditions that might not otherwise be discussed. Experiencing religions in this way can help people develop greater tolerance for others who are different than themselves. This is an important step towards combatting prejudice and hatred in the world.