Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that provides people with an object or objects of devotion and a sense of meaning and purpose. It also gives them a code of moral conduct to guide their interactions with other members of the group and the wider world. Religious beliefs tend to deal with the supernatural or spiritual, that is, with forces and powers beyond human control.
A religion usually involves a belief in one or more gods, spirits, or other divine or transcendent beings and entities, as well as beliefs about the afterlife, judgement, reward, or punishment, and a belief in reincarnation or some form of transfiguration. Various religions believe in the creation, evolution, or maintenance of life on earth and the afterlife, and they usually have some form of organised structure for the dissemination of their beliefs and teachings. They often involve a set of practices and rituals to perform in order to obtain favour from god, or their deities, or to achieve a state of grace or inner peace.
Often, these activities and rituals are aimed at helping people to cope with the many limitations that stand before them in their lives. Religions help them to recognize the many different kinds of limitation that are inevitable and to find ways to accept or overcome them. This is why most religions have a moral dimension and are responsible for the development of many of our social institutions, such as hospitals and schools, and are an essential component of social welfare systems around the globe.
Although the term “religion” was originally used as a synonym for “scrupulousness”, implying a commitment to a moral code or an attachment to some form of divine authority, it is now commonly used to refer to any system of ideas or practices that has a significant impact on the lives of individuals and their society. Some scholars have tried to define it etymologically, in terms of an idea that is present or absent in all cultures, but most studies are focused on the functions that the concept has for people and how it can be used by them for their own purposes.
In the last few decades, there has been a reflexive turn in social and cultural anthropology that has led some scholars to question the notion of religion as a universal category and to look at its constructed nature. This approach to the concept of religion is sometimes referred to as open polythetic, or a prototype theory of concepts, while others have taken a more classical view and have sought to limit the properties that the concept can be applied to.
It has been argued that to think about religion in terms of beliefs or even any mental states is to impose a Protestant bias on the study, and that it is instead necessary to look at the structures and disciplinary practices that give rise to those beliefs and feelings. This has been referred to as the structuralist or institutional perspective.