Religion is a category of human phenomena that cuts across multiple disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and even cognitive science. Recent debate has focused on whether or not there is an essence of religion (a kind resembling gold or water) that could be defined scientifically, perhaps in terms of biological or neurological causes. Such a definition would enable us to understand what makes the various things called religions different from one another and why they display varying degrees of family resemblance.
Currently, there are some 6.5 billion people who belong to one or more of the world’s major religions. Although these faiths vary widely, they share many features:
In general, religion focuses on the supernatural and addresses salvation in some way, either a literal heaven after death as in Christianity, or an end to suffering in nirvana as in Buddhism. It also usually includes a spiritual leader, holy books, sacred rites and rituals, symbols, and days of special significance, along with some form of organization and worship.
Some scholars have criticized the concept of religion, particularly in its modernist, Western context, for its tendency to categorize other cultures as godless and inferior. Others have argued that the concept of religion is useful for explaining and understanding cultural phenomena, and that it has served as a powerful social control device throughout history. In addition to its pedagogical utility, the notion of religion is also significant for postcolonial studies.