Religion is an ancient human phenomenon that arose in many different places and times. There are currently about 6.2 billion people who declare themselves religious in the world. Some of these adhere to one or more major traditions, while others belong to what are considered non-major religions. The most prevalent religions in the world are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, although each of these has a multitude of smaller traditions as well. Many of these religions are active in proselytizing for new members.
The word religion is defined by some as the recognition of dependence on a Deity and the devotional acts undertaken to express this dependency. Others define it as the belief that a God exists and has a plan for the future of mankind. This belief is often accompanied by the conviction that man can achieve blissful communion with this Deity through a Divinely appointed means. In either case, the sense of dependency is a central element that is shared by all religions.
Some definitions of religion also include concepts like morality, culture and myth. This is called the polythetic approach to the concept. It is an alternative to the traditional monothetic approach that has been used since the time of the Enlightenment. Polythetic approaches are becoming more popular because they allow for a wide range of interpretations and definitions of religion.
Among the functions of religion are giving meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical health, motivating people to work for positive social change, and fostering group cohesion. In a religious context, a sense of community may be created through the organization of churches or other groups, as well as through the support offered by religion in time of crisis or need.
The speculative side of religion is reflected in the sacred literature that characterizes most higher religions. This includes traditional myths and legends, the histories of the providential dealings of the Deity with mankind, sacred chants, hymns and prayers, the texts of the sacred rites and the prescriptions that regulate their exact performance, and speculations on the nature of the Deity, the soul, retribution and the future life.
Religions are complex systems that affect all aspects of people’s lives. They have both good and bad consequences for society as a whole. They can serve as a source of comfort and strength during difficult times, but they can also be a source of division and hatred. The Inquisition and the Salem witch trials are examples of the latter. It is therefore important to recognize that, as with all systems of thought, religion has both good and bad sides. The lines between these are sometimes blurred, but the differences must be recognized in order to understand what makes religion tick.