Religion is often defined as a collection of beliefs that are passed from believers to converts. It is considered to be a system of rules that help those that follow its tenets to understand the way the world works. But outside of these very vague ideas, there is no one single definition of what religion is because it is unique and different for every single person, even among the practitioners of the different religions. Religion is a deeply personal idea, unique to each and every person and can change and evolve over the lifetime of each person.
What makes a Religion?Religion generally has some basic aspects about it that make it a religion. A religion should have a set of beliefs and a mythology. It's important to understand that the term mythology is not employed when discussing religion with the intention of making believers feel as though they are being mocked. In the sense of religion, mythology takes the role of a mythos or a set of events or stories that are used to explain the world view, practices and beliefs of a group of people. Every group of people in the world, regardless of religion, has a mythology or mythos that explains where they came from and gives them their identities. The traditional American mythos, for example, involves the Pilgrims leaving England in search of a place where they could practice their religion freely. They land in Plymouth, they have the first Thanksgiving with the Native American's. This is America's mythology. In religions, mythology plays the same crucial role.
Religions also have their own worldview. Their histories, narratives and mythology help to establish their own world view and it is through the lens of this worldview that each individual figures out their place both in time and in history. Because religion is loosely defined as a set of rules, it is necessary that a religion have certain practices such as rituals, sermons, prayers, or other sorts of activities that are specific to the religion. Lastly, a religion has a societal basis and a definition of what it is someone must do to be a part of the religion.
Types of ReligionThere are three types of religions: world religions, indigenous religions, and new religious movements. World religions are those religions that can be found across cultures and countries. Indigenous religions are smaller and tend to be culturally or nationally specific. New religious movements is the term used to define those faiths that are much younger. There are four major religions in the world that make up the bulk of the 'world religion' category. These are: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Christianity makes up about 32% of the entire population of the world, Islam about 23%, Hinduism about 15% and Buddhism about 7%.
In Christianity, the followers profess a faith in a loving God who has revealed himself to his followers and can be known personally by believers. They believe that a man, who was also God, was born of a virgin and then was crucified and killed. He then rose from the dead and provides them a method of communication with God. Their holy book is called the Bible.
Islam believes that there is one god named Allah who is viewed as the creator of the universe and is the source of both good and evil. He controls everything and is a powerful and strict judge who will show mercy to followers based on their religious devotion and good works as determined by their literature. Muslims have five religious duties: repeat a creed, recite prayers five times a day, give to the needy, fast for one month from sunrise to sunset, and pilgrimage once in their lifetime to the shrine in Mecca.
Buddhists do not believe in a god or any other divine being. They seek to achieve spiritual enlightenment and thus freedom from the cycle of life and death. Many believe that they worship Buddha but they do not. Buddha is, instead, believed to be something of an ideal that any man can achieve. He succeeded in discovering enlightenment. Buddhists strive to put aside their personal desires in order to achieve Nirvana.
Hindu's believe in that their numerous gods and goddesses are actually different representations of a single entity known as Brahman. Hinduism is the religion from which the idea of Karma comes. Much like with Buddhism they strive to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth that Karma provides them with. Eventually they will achieve karmic equality and their souls will be at rest.
Non-ReligiousDespite 77% of the worlds population being involved in the major world religions, a good number of people identify as a-religious. This does not always mean that they don't believe in a supreme being, but instead that they haven't yet agreed with the tenets of a religion.
Atheists are those people who believe that a supreme being does not exist whether it be a personal deity or a universal deity.
Anti-theists are those who not only do not believe in organized religions, but tend to engage in activism.
Agnostics are those people who believe that a supreme being does exist, they just haven't found a religion that they agree with. It is a spectrum that can include those who believe absolutely that some sort of god exists to those who have no idea if god exists but just aren't ready to rule the idea out yet.
Freethinkers have been around since the 17th century and includes the people who oppose some tenets of an organized religion, at the time the Catholic church, and may express an opposition to literal belief in the ideas written in religious literature.
Another idea that was popular during the founding of America was Deism. This was a form of religion in which people said they didn't necessarily believe everything that was in the Bible, much like Freethinkers, but did believe that the natural world was an absolute testament to a divine creator who could be discovered through reason and inquiry. This is a huge reason why so much of occultism and esotericism came from these people and both occultism and esotericism can be considered forms of religion.