Religion is a complex and varied set of beliefs, practices, and values that bring people together. It also has the potential to create problems for individuals and societies. Some examples of these problems are discrimination against people who don’t follow the same religion and issues within religious groups. Religion can be a source of comfort and strength during difficult times. The benefits of religious practice are many, including helping to maintain healthy families and communities.
The term religion was first adapted from the Latin religio, a word that means “scrupulousness” or “abiding by commitments”. It came to be used as a social category in Western antiquity, though the concepts that have been applied to it since then were likely developed much earlier.
Most attempts to define religion have been “monothetic” in that they operate with the classical view that any social category accurately defined by a single property has an essence. Over the last several decades, however, there has been a shift toward what is called a polythetic approach to the concept of religion. This shift focuses on the notion that a religion is whatever system of beliefs and practices brings a group of people together into a moral community, whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities.
A key issue that has characterized the development of definitions of religion is how to distinguish between what counts as part of a religion and what does not. A common position is that a religion has to involve belief in a god or spirits, but there are also those who argue that this position is too narrow and that the category should be expanded to include a wide range of social activities such as caring for the dying, community service, and activism on behalf of disadvantaged groups.
Religion has a deep impact on culture and politics. It is reflected in music, art and literature, dress codes, and even the way that we organize our lives. It has also been a major influence on the political and economic systems that have emerged across the world over time.
Religion has become a major concern for politicians, scholars, and journalists worldwide. In recent years, the concept has come under intense scrutiny, with many scholars calling for a radical new way to look at it and others rejecting it altogether. Still other scholars have taken it as a point of departure for a critique of modernity, arguing that the idea of religion was invented in order to justify European colonialism and that we should stop treating the concept as if it were a necessary part of the human landscape. The debate over the nature of religion is a critical aspect of postcolonial and decolonial scholarship. It is also one of the most important and influential questions in sociology, philosophy, theology, anthropology, and the history of civilizations. For more information on the history of the religion concept, see the entry on Religious History. For more on contemporary perspectives on the meaning of religion, see Religion in Society, and The Future of Religion.