Religion is the belief in a supernatural power or spirit that has created and ordered the universe, and that, therefore, can provide guidance for human conduct. There are many different ideas about what religion is, and these differ widely among people and cultures. Some philosophers have tried to define religion, but this task has proved difficult. Ordinary language usage of the word is often vague, ambiguous or contradictory. For this reason, philosophers have tried to use more careful terminology in their studies of religion.
A number of definitions for religion have been offered by philosophers. Some have been based on the idea that religion is man’s realization of his or her dependence upon God for aid and prosperity in this world and the next. Others have been based on the idea that man aims at communion with God, and that this goal is the source of hope, morality and joy. Still other definitions have been based on the idea that mankind is a product of his or her environment, and that it is necessary to seek a way out of this situation.
Since the 19th century, there has been a movement toward studying religion in more historical and cultural contexts. This approach, which is known as the sociology of religion, has tried to avoid evaluating different religions normatively (a task that is legitimate and unavoidable for philosophy and theology) in order to examine them phenomenologically.
The sociology of religion has also tried to be aware that there are many cultures that do not have clear beliefs in a creator god or cosmological order, and that the study of those religions should be treated with some caution. This has resulted in the development of theories that view religion as a social genus that appears in every culture. While this is a more cautious view than that of treating religion as something universal, it is not without its problems.
Regardless of how one defines religion, there are some important features that it must contain. These include: