Religion is a collection of beliefs, behaviors, and norms that are shared by social groups. It serves a number of functions, including establishing meaning in life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change (Xygalatas 2013; Butler 2010).
The word “religion” is not a single thing but rather a collection of ideas, practices, and institutions that have been influenced by various cultures throughout history. It is a complex system of beliefs, rituals, and supernatural forces that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including culture, economic status, race, gender, family structure, and individual temperament.
A wide range of scholarly definitions have been used to define religion, from simple concepts such as “a belief in a god” to the broader term “the human attitude towards a sacred order”. Some scholars are more concerned with defining religion as a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things than with analyzing the concept’s meaning.
While some scholars argue that religion is a socially unified force, others think it can be both comforting and terrifying. Religious rituals can be powerful and traumatic, causing deep feelings of emotion and spiritual transformation (Xygalatas 2013; Winkelman 1998).
Some researchers have also observed that religious communes have outlasted secular ones in history. These communes impose more costly requirements, such as food taboos, fasts, and material constraints. In addition, they seem to nudge their members toward a more intense commitment to the commune’s ideals and values.
Another common approach to defining religion is based on the symbolic interactionist theory of religious practice. Symbolic interactionists believe that religion is a human experience in which the mind interacts with divine or supernatural entities, spirits, and powers. These interactions can be both trancelike and transformative, creating a sense of oneness or interconnectedness with others.
This kind of approach is more inductive and is intended to understand religion in its concreteness, its historical creativity, and its significance for the cultural, social, and individual lives with which it is interwoven. Such methods of defining religion are often called dialectical.
Early attempts to develop a historical account of religions, especially in western antiquity, relied on notions rooted in philosophical and theological discussion. These included concepts such as monotheism, polytheism, deism, pantheism, and animism, each conceived in a specific cultural epoch and reflecting a particular understanding of the origin and development of religion.
Such conceptualizations, however, inevitably raise important questions about the nature of religion itself. Whether such an account is valid, or whether a different approach, such as the hermeneutical one, is more appropriate, is not yet clear.
Moreover, the hermeneutical approach, in which the interpretative key to unlock the mystery of the phenomenon under study is determined by an inductive analysis of the text or a purely historical description, often overlooks crucial issues of continuity and change in the religious systems studied. These issues are especially important in the comparative study of religions, because such a study has to deal with systems of belief and ritual behavior that are highly differentiated from each other, even in terms of their basic elements.