Religion is a system of beliefs, values and practices that provides its adherents with meaning and purpose. Many of these beliefs and values are shared across many cultures, but some are unique to particular cultures. Religion can be a powerful force in society, bringing peace and prosperity to nations, or it can cause great divisions and strife. Religion is a human response to those elements in life and the world that are beyond ordinary comprehension, and it can provide comfort and guidance for humans as they navigate through these uncharted waters.
Throughout history, individuals have sought answers to questions such as where they came from, why they are here, and what it all means. The role of religion is to answer these questions and give its followers a sense of belonging, structure, and ethics to help them make sense of the world around them. Often, religions also offer a promise of an afterlife that motivates people to remain faithful.
A number of theories exist concerning the origin of religion. Some anthropologists believe that humankind created religion as a response to biological or cultural needs. Others suggest that humankind became spiritual after developing the ability to contemplate death, and this led to a search for ways to avoid or mitigate that fate.
Another theory focuses on the social nature of religion. It is believed that religious beliefs are formed through shared experiences, such as childhood trauma, or through cultural transmission, such as being born into a family with a strong religious background. The idea is that these shared experiences or cultural transmissions lead to a belief in a supernatural force and/or a moral code that guides human behavior.
Some scholars are uncomfortable with this one-sided focus on the spiritual aspect of religion and argue that to understand it better, attention should be given to the social and structural aspects of religiosity. They point out that the Protestant bias of nineteenth-century anthropology, which focused on concepts, may have skewed the discipline’s understanding of religion. Others suggest that the three-sided model of the true, beautiful and good reflects the cultural and philosophical context in which it was developed, and it is therefore not universally applicable.
Other academics have moved away from monothetic approaches to the study of religion, and instead have favored polythetic definitions. Polythetic definitions seek to define religion by what it is not rather than by what it is, and they attempt to eliminate purely substantive or functional criteria in the process. They have been inspired by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who argued that a concept should not be defined in terms of its referents but only in the space of their overlap.
Some academics have also proposed that a definition of religion should include both metaphysics and axiology, recognizing that both are essential to religiosity. However, they have criticized this approach as overly abstract, and have advocated that it should be balanced by adding a fourth dimension: community.