Religion is found across all cultures, and yet it can be difficult to define. French sociologist Émile Durkheim used an empirical definition, identifying religion as an institution related to “sacred things,” with beliefs, practices, and a social organization. This definition provides a checklist for studying religion. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, on the other hand, defines it as a system of symbols connected to moods, motivations, and a “general order of existence.” While more abstract, this definition addresses the meaning and sense of identity that religion conveys to practitioners. In the United States today, people identify themselves religiously in a number of ways, including as “nones,” people with no religious affiliation. Nones, agnostics, and atheists do have worldviews particular to their cultures, and they sometimes also have spiritual beliefs.
Religion has several common characteristics. Witchcraft and sorcery became part of religion as it evolved to adapt to world populations. In these cases, religion expresses social conflict within the society. Magic is also part of every religion, as religious belief systems are based on cause and effect, and anthropologists see magic as a profound human act of faith. Most religions also involve supernatural forces, such as gods and goddesses. Monotheistic religions focus on a single named god, while polytheistic religions involve a group of deities. Most religions have some type of leadership, either priests or shamans.
Shamanism is an early form of religion, found throughout human history, and possibly the explanation for mortuary artifacts and even cave painting. While shamanism is a healing practice, it is also a set of beliefs and practices regarding a supernatural world. As populations became larger, some shamanic cults developed into more organized and institutional forms of religion, leading to large state religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Shamanic practices can still be found within these larger religions.
Symbolism is common to all religions, regardless of whether they are small indigenous cults or state religious systems. Geographical space marked by symbolism can become a sacred place with specific meaning to religious practitioners. Religious myths, the stories behind the beliefs, are heavily marked with symbolic meaning. Religions can convey their beliefs through both oral and written traditions, with certain groups focused specifically on one or the other. Religious practice is known as ritual, and there are a variety of types of ritual, including rites of intensification, rites of passage, and rites of affliction.
Historically, there has been a great diversity in religious groups, including utopian religious communities that live separate from secular society and focus almost entirely on living a religious life. The Shakers are an example of this type of religious society. There are also examples of secular religion, in which the state or society itself is elevated as if it had a divine status.