Religion is a complex system of belief that involves ritual, sacred symbols and objects, a community that shares the same values, a group of deities to whom believers pray and worship, and a moral code for behavior. Religions also typically deal with the concept of salvation, which can be in a literal sense (either through a belief in heaven after death or in a symbolic way such as nirvana in Buddhism), or a more abstract meaning for life.
Religions are as diverse as the cultures they represent but many share certain common traits that distinguish them from other human social institutions. They are often characterized by the presence of some combination of these elements:
Religious experiences can be profoundly affective. For example, they may include crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike states and feelings of oneness with others in the religious community. Religious teachings often stress the importance of good morality and a focus on helping those in need. They also encourage social solidarity and support for members of the faith and discourage discord and violence.
Many philosophers, social thinkers and anthropologists have contributed to the theory of Religion. Some, such as the German idealist philosopher Hegel (1804-72) and the French social thinker Auguste Comte (1798-1857), argued that religion served several functions: it gave people a purpose in their lives, reinforced social unity and stability, promoted mental health, and encouraged work for positive social change.
Other thinkers, such as the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), approached religion as a process of human culture and development. He argued that religion evolved as a response to the fear of uncontrollable forces, including death. It was a way to give people hope, particularly in the form of immortality or life after death, and to reassure them that they were not completely alone in the world.
The earliest religions for which we have written records developed along the Nile River and in what is now Egypt and Mesopotamia. These were polytheistic religions, believing in multiple gods and goddesses. Over time, these early religions began to develop ritual, myth and theology that became more and more complex.
The evolution of modern scientific knowledge and technology, including physics and mathematics, and the growing interest in the study of the history of civilizations and other cultures prepared the way for more sophisticated theories of Religion. Sociology, anthropology and philosophy viewed religious traditions from a cross section to find common patterns or structures; psychology emphasized spiritual experience and feelings; and literary and other studies focused on the meaning of religious writings and myths. Each discipline looked at different aspects of religion but essentially agreed on the basic principles of how to understand a religion.