Religions have a complex influence on the lives of their followers. They can bring people together in communities of faith, and they can be a source of strength in difficult times. But they can also reinforce social inequality and lead to conflict because of differences in beliefs and practices. And they can make people feel excluded and threatened by other religious beliefs.
Religion has made a profound imprint on culture throughout history. This can be seen in the form of art and architecture, music and dance, writings, ways of organising family life, food and drink, and even the clothing that is worn. Religions also have a major impact on moral behaviour, enshrining rules that are considered to be good or bad, or right or wrong. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition has a set of commandments that are viewed as the code for moral behaviour.
The study of Religion has emerged as a formal discipline since the 19th century, with various methods and approaches drawn from the disciplines of history, philology, literary criticism, anthropology, psychology, sociology and philosophy. These different perspectives often clash, and there is still no consensus about how to define the concept of Religion. One approach is to adopt a polythetic definition that allows many properties to be included in the category without fastening on any single property as an essential feature of religions. This is an approach that is becoming increasingly popular as a way of avoiding the claim that a static, ahistorical essence can be identified.
Another approach is to attempt to capture the essence of religion by identifying a core set of beliefs and practices that are common to most religions. This can be done by analysing beliefs and practices, examining values that are expressed or espoused, and studying rituals. But this is not an easy task because of the wide range of beliefs and practices that are practised in the world.
Religious beliefs and values vary widely, but they are often based on an individual’s worldview and their perception of the universe. These can be complex and abstract, or simple and practical. For example, a belief in God is a central part of most religions, but the form that this takes can be very diverse, as can the specifics of how this is understood and practised.
Moreover, there is much that is not shared between religions: for example, the past is regarded in very different ways in different religions (some believe that time is cyclical while others see it as linear). The future is a hugely significant element of most religions but it is known extremely little by most people.
For these reasons, it may be impossible to capture the essence of Religion in a single, universal definition. Nonetheless, the study of religion is an important one. It is vital to understand how different religions operate in order to appreciate the rich diversity of human experience. The key to understanding this is to recognize that religions are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieve ends which transcend them: to help us live wisely, and to allow us to deal with the fact that our lives are a project into acknowledged but largely unknown futures.