Religion is a unified system of thoughts and feelings that provides its members with an object or objects of devotion—a person, group, or idea, such as a god or spiritual concept—and with a code of behavior that guides personal moral conduct. It also includes a belief in forces or powers beyond the control of humans, such as a divine power, and rituals that involve participation in these beliefs or concepts.
Religious thought is an ancient phenomenon, and it is hard to define. Some writers avoid attempting to do so, focusing instead on what religion does or how it affects people (e.g., Wach 1951). Others use formal definitions. These approaches tend to focus on certain features or structures of religion, such as the pious disposition that leads to the virtue of faith. Other features that some consider important include the existence of the supernatural, the importance of worship, and participation in a community of believers.
Anthropologists have speculated that early religion grew out of attempts to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather or success in hunting. Some of these efforts used manipulation, such as magic, while others used supplication, such as by praying.
Emile Durkheim, a leading sociological theorist of religion, stressed that religion serves many functions in society—including helping people deal with stress, providing social support and integration, and giving meaning to life. This perspective, sometimes called functionalist, is still a central one in sociological understanding of religion. Karl Marx, on the other hand, believed that religion reflected class divisions and maintained poverty in societies, creating and perpetuating inequality.