Religion is a diverse social phenomenon, found in all cultures and throughout all time periods. Historically, scholars have sought to understand its origins and development. These efforts have been assisted by the growth of archaeology and anthropology and the expansion of knowledge about world religions.
Anthropologists and sociologists have generally viewed religion as a system of belief and practice that reflects people’s relationship with both inanimate objects and living things in their environment. They have noted that more complex societies tend to have more elaborate religious systems than simpler ones. They have also compared the development of different societies and cultures and have sought to describe trends across cultures.
Scholars have sought to explain the nature of religion and why it is important to people. They have used both functionalist and substantive approaches to the subject. A functionalist approach seeks to describe the functions of a religious phenomenon and then to compare those functions with other phenomena.
Some scholars, like Karl Marx and Freud, have seen religion as a projection of the needs of human beings onto a suprarational realm. Others, like Cooley, have sought to define religion as a microfunction that meets certain basic human needs.
Still other scholars have sought to understand how different religious beliefs are related to a society’s culture and history. These researchers have emphasized the importance of studying a society’s religions to understand its cultural evolution. These perspectives have complemented the functionalist and substantive understandings of religion and have added to the richness of our knowledge about this fascinating and persistent aspect of human life.