Religion is a system of beliefs, values, and ritual behaviors centered on a god or gods. Some religious beliefs and practices are universal while others are particular to a culture or ethnic group. Some religions are monotheistic, while others believe in many gods or spirits. Religions are often characterized by their teachings about good and evil, morality, ethics, the afterlife, and other worldly matters. Religions also typically have sacred texts, symbols, rites and ceremonies, and a community of believers.
Historically, religions grew out of humankind’s attempts to answer questions that science cannot answer. These include how the universe came to be, why we die, and what is the purpose of life. Religions may offer a path to salvation, whether this means going to heaven after death as in Christianity or attaining an end to suffering such as nirvana in Buddhism. Some religions are based on the teachings of a prophet or messenger, such as Jesus (c. thirty-three to four hundred bce) for Christianity, Muhammad (c. 570-632) for Islam, and Moses (c. thirteenth century bce) for Judaism. Others are developed through philosophy, such as the teachings of Siddartha Gautama (c. 563-483 bce) in Buddhism.
Most religions include a belief in a divine power or powers that created the universe and sustain the natural world, as well as an expectation of rewards or punishments for our actions. They usually contain moral and ethical guidelines for our lives, as well as a code of conduct to follow. In addition, they generally have a leader or prophet whom their followers look up to as having divine authority, as well as a church or other community of worship.
The study of religion has grown with the development of the modern sciences, especially archaeology and anthropology, and the growing interest in comparative religion. The 19th century saw a move away from the idea that a true religion must be normatively superior to a false one and toward a phenomenological approach to studying different religions.
Some scientists, such as psychologists and neuroscientists, have suggested that religion serves emotional and psychological needs in humans, such as a fear of death or a desire for a spiritual experience beyond what is provided by the material world. Some have even proposed that there is a part of the brain that is wired for religious experiences.
Totally secular approaches to religion have also been popular, and some of these have been useful in developing public policy, psychotherapy, and education. However, religion continues to play a vital role in the lives of many people around the globe. For some, it offers a way to find meaning and direction in their lives, while for others, it is an important connection to a larger universe and a hope of eternal life. And for some, it is simply a source of comfort. Approximately 6.2 billion people, or about a third of the population of Earth, declare themselves religious in some way. A majority of these adhere to Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.