Religion is a complex and sometimes contradictory phenomenon. A common understanding of the term is a group of beliefs and practices that offer believers a sense of direction in life, morality, and social cohesion. It often involves a belief in something larger than the individual and a set of ideas about how humans should interact with that something, usually through prayer, meditation, and acts of service. Many of these beliefs and practices have been used by people throughout history to control their environment and the world around them, as well as to comfort them in difficult times.
The origins of religion are a matter of debate among scholars, but most agree that it developed from a combination of human curiosity about the Big Questions and fear of uncontrollable forces. It transformed these emotions into hope, a belief that there is life after death, that there is a loving creator who watches over humans, and that there is a purpose to human existence.
Anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures) and evolutionary biologists suggest that early religion grew out of human attempts to manipulate or appease uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting. These early attempts fell into two broad categories: manipulation, through magic, and supplication, through religion.
Scholars have argued about whether the concept of religion is an abstract one, such as a “social taxon” that sorts various cultural phenomena into a common category; this view has been criticized by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and by modern historians of philosophy such as Bernard Williams (1929-2003) and Hilary Putnam (1926-2017). Some scholars argue that, in light of advances in archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences, we must now take a more open polythetic approach to the study of religions, recognizing that there are family resemblances between them rather than seeking essential properties.
There is also a movement to reduce the concept of religion to a particular set of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. This approach is sometimes referred to as functional or pan-human, and it has been defended by some as an alternative to both the open and closed polythetic definitions.
Some argue that this functional view of religion is flawed because it neglects the fact that there are some groups of people who do not have these beliefs or practice these behaviors. These people, who are not religious in the usual sense of the word, are important to our understanding of the nature of religion as a universal human phenomenon. This criticism of the functional approach is sometimes based on the assumption that those who define religion in this way are biased toward Christianity or other monotheistic religions. However, this argument is circular and ignores the fact that there are non-Christian religions that are just as valid as the beliefs or practices commonly defined as religion in Western societies.