Religion is a way of showing devotion to a God. Each religion has a Holy Book and practices to show this devotion. For example, praying, having a special place to worship and celebrating religious festivals. It also includes the belief that a higher power created the Universe and helps humans to understand their world.
The earliest studies of religion developed out of the study of magic and of the various attempts by human beings to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting. Early studies contrasted magical techniques with religion, which tries to control the environment through faith in the power of an unseen force.
Emile Durkheim, for instance, stressed the social functions of religion—the fact that it binds people together in solidarity and gives them meaning in life. This approach is still influential in sociological thinking today.
There are many other ways of understanding religion, though. Some scientists, such as psychologists and neuroscientists, argue that religion meets the psychological needs of people. For example, it may provide meaning and direction in life, or give comfort when facing death.
Other scholars, such as Ninian Smart, have emphasized that the concept of religion is a social one that emerges from a specific context. To avoid the danger of a minimal and univocal definition of religion—of trying to rank different religious beliefs as if they were species of a single genus—such an approach must recognize that each religion develops through a dynamic process in which its elements of ritual, belief, and meaning change over time.