Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and values. It is usually characterized by the belief in a supreme being or gods, or in a transcendent cosmic order. It also encompasses a wide range of ideas, concepts, and experiences related to spirituality, morality, and mythology, as well as a variety of social institutions, rituals, and practices such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, trance and meditation. It is a central part of many cultures and is often regarded as a key element in the human experience.

The definition of religion has been a hotly debated topic in the field of religious studies, with scholars failing to agree on a single definition. Some, such as William Ernest Wilfred Cantwell Smith, have claimed that the term “religion” has no meaning outside of western culture, while others, including Daniel Dubuisson and Ernst Feil, have argued that it does not have any specific, universal meaning within cultures either.

A common approach has been to define religion as a belief in the existence of an invisible, suprahuman controlling power – the God hypothesis. This view is usually accompanied by the assumption that this power is the ultimate creator and sustainer of the universe, and that the universe is permeated with a mysterious force called “energy”.

Beliefs and practices are not the only aspect of a religion; there are also sacred histories and narratives, traditions, rituals, and symbols that are often considered to be divinely inspired. Many religions have also developed elaborate theories of creation, evolution, and the afterlife. They may believe in the immortality of the soul, and some have apocalyptic or messianic eschatologies. In addition, many religions have their own sacred texts and holy places, and they are often organized into hierarchies of priests, gurus, imams, rabbis, and monks that serve as a channel for the transmission of religious teachings.

Other scholars have sought to avoid the claim that a particular belief in an imaginary, supernatural reality defines what is a religion by focusing on the practices and values that distinguish religions from non-religions. This approach is sometimes referred to as a “functional” definition. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever set of practices unite a group into a single moral community, regardless of whether they involve beliefs in unusual realities. This functionalist definition has the advantage of avoiding a monothetic identification of an essence, but it is not without its own problems. For example, it neglects the fact that some forms of life, such as economic systems or political structures, are just as likely to inspire moral concern as religions. For this reason, some scholars have added a fourth dimension to Smart’s anatomy of religion, which they call material culture, to recognize the important role that it plays in religion.

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