The word religion, in most of its many variants, can be defined as an organization of people who voluntarily unite for the purpose of pursuing moral, spiritual, or psychological goals. In its most basic form, religion can also be described as a set of beliefs about the universe and how it works, as well as specific practices such as prayer or worship. Some definitions of religion focus on the fact that religion is organized, while others emphasize its importance in individual lives. A third approach focuses on the belief that religion teaches people to live together in peace and happiness.
Most modern historians of religion use a substantive definition that determines that a practice or belief is religious if it involves an intense personal commitment to some sort of higher power. This is the kind of definition that can be seen in the beliefs of a number of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Other scholars have criticized the use of this definition, which focuses on beliefs and emotional states. They argue that this approach obscures the cultic and social dimensions of religion, especially so-called primitive forms of religion.
One theory of the origins of religion suggests that it developed as a human response to an innate biological or cultural need. Those who support this view suggest that it was the result of the evolution of the brain, which allowed humans to understand the process of life, or of a need to provide explanations for the natural world around them.
A second theory of the origins of religion suggests that religion developed as a response to some kind of social need. Those who support this view suggest it was the result of some combination of humankind’s need to create community, or its need to give meaning to an incomprehensible world. This theory of the origins of religion is based on the work of anthropologists, scientists who study human societies and cultures.
Several different schools of thought have emerged in the twentieth century that offer alternative ways to define religion. Some of them drop the idea of a distinctive kind of reality, in favor of a functional definition that describes a particular way of organizing a group. Emile Durkheim, for example, saw religion as a system of practices that unites a group of people into a moral community.
Other schools of thought, influenced by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, argue that religion is the knowledge acquired by man of his own infinity, and that a person can attain happiness and perfection only by friendly communion with the Divine Being. These views have become popular in some Western countries, particularly in the United States, where they are associated with Romanticism and the rise of new religions. These ideas are not accepted by all scholars. They are not as widespread as the substantive theories of religion, which continue to be the dominant school of thought in some universities. But they do have a significant influence on the development of religion studies.