The variety and number of religious organizations and beliefs around the world is so large that sociologists have a difficult time arriving at a single definition of religion. In Western societies, people usually identify religion with Christianity: the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who promises salvation through faith and life after death. Yet religion as a global phenomenon presents a much more complex picture, because most of the world's religions lack the core concepts of Christianity.
To avoid thinking about religion from a culturally biased point of view, sociologists first define what religion is not.
- First, religion is not necessarily monotheistic, which is the belief in monotheism, or a single deity. Instead, many religions embrace polytheism, or the belief in multiple deities. Still other religions, such as Confucianism, recognize no gods at all.
- Religion is not necessarily a body of moral rules and demands concerning the behavior of believers. The notion that deities somehow keep track of how believers behave is foreign to many religions.
- Religion is not necessarily a belief in the supernatural, heaven, hell, or even life after death. Confucianism, again as an example, emphasizes acceptance of the natural harmony of the world, not finding truths that lie beyond it.
- Finally, religion is not necessarily an explanation of the origins of creation. The Christian story of Adam and Eve explains the origins of humanity. Many religions, but not all, have similar myths of origin.
Having examined what religion is not, sociologists consider what characteristics do constitute religion. Sociologists generally define religion as a codified set of moral beliefs concerning sacred things and rules governing the behavior of believers who form a spiritual community. All religions share at least some characteristics. Religions use symbols, invoke feelings of awe and reverence, and prescribe rituals for their adherents to practice. Religion differs from magic, which involves superstitious beliefs and behaviors designed to bring about a desired end.
Religion has numerous rituals and ceremonies, which may include lighting candles, holding processions, kneeling, praying, singing hymns and psalms, chanting, listening to sacred readings, eating certain foods, fasting from other foods on special days, and so forth. These rituals, because of their religious nature, may differ quite a bit from the procedures of ordinary daily life. Religious individuals may practice their rituals and ceremonies alone, at home, or within special spaces: shrines, temples, churches, synagogues, or ceremonial grounds.
In most traditional societies, religion plays a central role in cultural life. People often synthesize religious symbols and rituals into the material and artistic culture of the society: literature, storytelling, painting, music, and dance. The individual culture also determines the understanding of priesthood. A priest offers sacrifices to a deity or deities on behalf of the people. In smaller hunting‐and‐gathering societies no priesthood exists, although certain individuals specialize in religious (or magical) knowledge. One such specialist is the shaman, who the people believe controls supernatural forces. People may consult the shaman when traditional religion fails.