Religion is a system of beliefs, practices, and codes of conduct that provide people with an object of devotion—something or someone they believe is sacred—and with a code by which to judge their actions and the actions of others. It also often involves a belief in the supernatural—forces and entities that are beyond the control of humans. Religions may also have a role to play in the maintenance of social and psychological well-being, in the foundations of moral/ethical, economic, and political reasoning.
There is considerable debate about what exactly a religion is. Some scholars take what is sometimes called a monothetic approach, the idea that each religion can be defined accurately by one property that distinguishes it from other types of things. Others have taken a polythetic approach, which sees each religion as having several properties that together make it what we might call a religion.
Among the most influential theories of religion are those of anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and origins). Some think that religion grew out of human curiosity about life’s big questions—like what happens after death—and out of human fear of uncontrollable forces. Religion, in this view, offers hope that can help us deal with these questions and fears.
Other anthropologists, however, have offered different explanations. Clifford Geertz, for example, argued that religion was a system of symbols that established powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by fashioning conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with an aura of factuality.