Religion is an important aspect of human life. It provides a sense of purpose, gives a framework for moral behavior and social control, teaches people how to deal with death and other frightening issues, and serves as the basis for many community-based social service programs. It also has cultural significance, providing a way for individuals to understand themselves and others and connect with the larger world. Despite the wide range of religious traditions and differences, some basic elements are shared by all religions.
Although there is much disagreement on what religion actually is, most definitions include a group of beliefs that are unified and give its members an object of devotion and a set of rules for how to live. Most religions focus on the supernatural or spiritual, about forces that are beyond the control of humans.
One theory of why humans need religion is that it grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life, such as what happens after death and whether there is an ultimate meaning to life. It may also have developed out of the fear of uncontrollable forces in nature.
Many of the earliest religions were based on tribal totems, ancestor worship and belief in guardian gods. Over time, these beliefs developed into more complex systems of thought and practice that involved stories about the creation of the world and about individual gods and goddesses. They also included sacred places, rituals and codes of conduct.
In addition, most religions have some element of hope, a belief that there is a god who watches over humanity and will reward good behavior and punish bad. This element of faith binds most religions together and can be a source of great inspiration for believers.
Some scholars argue that the concept of religion is so broad that it can cover anything that is held by a group of people as being sacred and given divine authority. Others disagree, believing that to be a religion something must have a clear and coherent system of teachings and practices.
A major book that argues for a more systematic approach to understanding religion is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). Asad uses Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” method, which tries to identify the mechanisms by which power inculcates its ideas and values in society.
The NCSS defines religion as “a unified system of thoughts, feelings and actions that provides its followers with an object of devotion, a code of moral conduct, and a set of beliefs about the world.” It also has to provide a sense of cohesion in the group’s behavior and an identity for its members. The religion must be capable of transforming its adherents into better people and addressing the human need for hope, love and respect. It must be able to explain the purpose of this universe, give its followers a sense of direction and moral strength, and create a bond with a higher power or force. It must also offer a solution to the problems of evil in this world and in the next.