Religion is an important element in the lives of most people worldwide. It aims to give meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, provides moral guidance and may motivate people to work for positive social change. It also ideally serves several functions: it promotes psychological and physical well-being, offers hope, and gives identity.
Religions vary greatly in what they believe and how they practice, yet scholars generally agree that they all satisfy a basic human need. In addition, many religions are associated with a variety of rituals that can be intense experiences for participants. They can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions and a sense of oneness with others. Moreover, they can help people cope with difficult circumstances, such as illness, death and divorce.
Various definitions have been proposed to describe religion. Edward Tylor’s minimal definition focuses on belief in spiritual beings. Paul Tillich’s functional definition identifies it as whatever dominates a person’s values and provides orientation for their lives.
These different approaches illustrate the complexity of the phenomenon, making it difficult to identify a single method that can be used to understand it. One approach is to analyze the religious experience, using categories such as those developed by Hans Jonas and Rudolf Otto.
Another method is to study religious structures and practices, using the analytical tools of sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology and political science. Comparative studies are often the most helpful, since they allow researchers to compare the religions of different cultures and regions.