Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that reflects human beings’ ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. These concerns are expressed as relationships with and attitudes toward God or spirits, or, in more humanistic or naturalistic traditions, toward a broader community and the natural world. Religion also includes veneration of texts deemed to have scriptural status, and of people invested with spiritual or moral authority.
Traditionally, scholars have analyzed religion by examining the various aspects that comprise it. These have included its beliefs, practices, and symbols. The beliefs include scripture and doctrine; the practices involve prayers, rituals, and observances; and the symbols are icons, shrines, and other symbolic markers. A more recent approach has shifted the focus from the what of religion to its how and why. This focuses on the social, cultural, and psychological effects of religion.
It is common today for the concept of religion to be viewed as a taxon, a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. These world religions, however, are merely the tip of an iceberg. In reality, there are many religious beliefs and practices that have never been given a name by their practitioners or observers. These are often referred to as folk religions or “non-religions”.
One of the issues in studying religion is how to define it. Some academics take a substantive approach and insist that only those belief systems which have the characteristics traditionally associated with religion can be called a religion. This approach is known as a realist approach. While this approach has its strengths, it is also problematic because it presupposes a set of cultural assumptions that are not always true.
Other scholars use a functionalist approach to define religion. This view identifies the underlying concerns that provide orientation in life and which create solidarity among groups. This is a different approach than the realist one but still does not assume that a particular set of beliefs and behaviors must be called a religion.
A third approach focuses on the phenomenology of religion. This approach looks at how a religion manifests itself in people’s daily lives. This can include things like the way that religions are organized, the kinds of rituals and ceremonies they perform, the feelings they evoke, etc.
A fourth approach is a sociological or anthropological perspective on religion. This approach considers how a culture organizes its values, the meaning that a particular religion gives to life, and the influences that shape and change that religion. It is this approach that has inspired the most recent developments in understanding religion and how it works. All of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses.