A religion is an organized group of people who share beliefs and values that are based on the supernatural. Religions are often thought to be the answers to fundamental questions about life, death and a higher power. People have been engaging in religious practices for thousands of years. Religion has been a source of comfort, guidance and inspiration. It is also a way of addressing fears, anxieties and other emotional issues. In addition, some religions offer hope in a future with the divine or the afterlife.
There is much debate about what exactly a religion is and how it should be defined. Various scholars have approached the question from different disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies and psychology. Some of the debates have been over monothetic and polythetic definitions of religion, while others have focused on examining different features that are common to most religions.
Monothetic-set definitions of religion treat religion as a multifaceted or multidimensional complex. This is not a new concept and it is well-established in the field of philosophical theology. Christian theologians, for example, have long analyzed their own faith in terms of different dimensions such as fides, fiducia and fidelitas. These different aspects all contribute to a complete system of belief and behavior. The concept of a multidimensional complex is important because it emphasizes the idea that religion is not something simple and neat to be understood in terms of a set of rigid rules.
Polythetic-set definitions of religion argue that all religions have certain features in common and that these are sufficient to classify them as religions. This approach is usually based on a theory of concepts that uses prototypes to explain how some things will be more likely to be classified as one type than another. This approach is not without its critics, however. One main problem is that the prototypes are often influenced by historical peculiarities and the cultural context in which the term religion was first used.
Sociological approaches to religion are usually based on an examination of how religions develop and their characteristics. They can be aimed at developing a sociological theory of religion or they can attempt to compare the growth rates of different religions in order to identify key features that account for their success or failure. One prominent theory in this area was developed by Clifford Geertz, who argued that most religions are built on a combination of worldview and ethos.
There are many other theories that aim to understand religion through the lens of evolutionary psychology. These seek to explore the survival advantages that might have led prehistoric hunter-gatherers to develop religions in the form of social cohesion and shared beliefs.
Psychological approaches to the study of religion focus on the collection and classification of psychological data and the development of explanations for religious experiences and beliefs. They include a broad range of work by such thinkers as Sigmund Freud (Oedipus complex), Carl Jung (Universal archetypes) and William James (Pragmatism, Personal Religion). Recently, there has been interest in the study of religious experience using the methods of cognitive science.