Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that give its members a common identity and unified system of thought, emotion, and action. It offers a vision of the future and a code for personal morality. It can also bring people together and promote social harmony, but over the centuries it has also led to persecution and wanton bloodshed. The study of religion is therefore both fascinating and problematic. While many scholars see the value in studying religion, others find that its complex nature makes it difficult to define.
Different approaches to the study of religion have been developed, and many of them are in competition with one another. Some approaches focus on the mental states that are believed to be at the root of religion, while others seek to understand the visible structures that create these beliefs and feelings. The structure/agency debate that raged over the concept of religion in the twentieth century continues to influence scholars today, but there are many other ways to approach the study of religion.
Some scholars take a polythetic approach to the study of religion, which views it as a multidimensional complex. This allows for the study of a variety of religious phenomena, from the sacred to the mundane. Other scholars, such as Clifford Geertz, are more concerned with understanding how religion influences human behavior and culture.
Other scholars have argued that the term religion is a modern creation. They claim that the way it is used in modern society reflects European colonialism, and they urge us to use other terms to describe these forms of human life.
Still other critics have gone further, arguing that the very idea of religion is a construct that can be manipulated by those in power. These critics go as far as to suggest that the word religion does not even exist, although it is commonly used to refer to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and some regional variants of these systems (Chinese religions, Shinto, for example).
The vast majority of people on Earth practice some form of religion. This is not only good for individuals, families, and communities, but it helps to reduce problems such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, racial tensions, poverty, ignorance, anxiety, and so forth. The fact that it can also lead to murder, persecution, war, and other social pathologies is an unfortunate side effect of this activity. This is why it is important to study and evaluate religion, rather than merely condemn or support it. However, many people who are religious feel that it is vitally necessary to their survival and happiness. Hence, the continuing popularity of this topic. It is for these reasons that this article will attempt to provide a definition of religion that is broad enough to cover all types of spiritual activities and beliefs. It will not, however, try to offer a definitive list of what is and is not religion. Such lists would be inherently subjective and prone to change as new knowledge is gained about the phenomenon of religion.