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Religious practices may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of God or deities), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. Religions have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, and symbols and holy places, that aim mostly to give a meaning to life. Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes said by followers to be true, that have the side purpose of explaining the origin of life, the Universe, and other things. Traditionally, faith, in addition to reason, has been considered a source of religious beliefs. There are an estimated 10,000 distinct religions worldwide. About 84% of the world's population is affiliated with one of the five largest religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or forms of folk religion.
With the onset of the modernisation of and the scientific revolution in the western world, some aspects of religion have cumulatively been criticized. Though the religiously unaffiliated, including atheism (the rejection of belief in the existence of deities) and agnosticism (the belief that the truth of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable), have grown globally, many of the unaffiliated still have various religious beliefs. About 16% of the world's population is religiously unaffiliated.
The study of religion encompasses a wide variety of academic disciplines, including theology, comparative religion and social scientific studies. Theories of religion offer various explanations for the origins and workings of religion.
Religion (from O.Fr. religion ,,religious community", from L. religionem (nom. religio) ,,respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods", ,,obligation, the bond between man and the gods") is derived from the Latin religiō, the ultimate origins of which are obscure. One possible interpretation traced to Cicero, connects lego ,,read", i.e. re (again) with lego in the sense of "choose", "go over again" or "consider carefully". Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligare "bind, connect", probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or ,,to reconnect", which was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius. The medieval usage alternates with order in designating bonded communities like those of monastic orders: ,,we hear of the 'religion' of the Golden Fleece, of a knight 'of the religion of Avys'".
In the ancient and medieval world, the etymological Latin root religio was understood as an individual virtue of worship, never as doctrine, practice, or actual source of knowledge. The modern concept of "religion" as an abstraction which entails distinct sets of beliefs or doctrines is a recent invention in the English language since such usage began with texts from the 17th century due to the splitting of Christendom during the Protestant Reformation and more prevalent colonization or globalization in the age of exploration which involved contact with numerous foreign and indigenous cultures with non-European languages. It was in the 17th century that the concept of "religion" received its modern shape despite the fact that ancient texts like the Bible, the Quran, and other ancient sacred texts did not have a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written. For example, the Greek word threskeia, which was used by Greek writers such as Herodotus and Josephus and is found in texts like the New Testament, is sometimes translated as "religion" today, however, the term was understood as "worship" well into the medieval period. In the Quran, the Arabic word din is often translated as "religion" in modern translations, but up to the mid-1600s translators expressed din as ,,law". Even in the 1st century AD, Josephus had used the Greek term ioudaismos, which some translate as "Judaism" today, even though he used it as an ethnic term, not one linked to modern abstract concepts of religion as a set of beliefs. It was in the 19th century that the terms ,,Buddhism", ,,Hinduism", ,,Taoism", and ,,Confucianism" first emerged. Throughout its long history, Japan had no concept of "religion" since there was no corresponding Japanese word, nor anything close to its meaning, but when American warships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853 and forced the Japanese government to sign treaties demanding, among other things, freedom of religion, the country had to contend with this Western idea.
According to the philologist Max Müller in the 19th century, the root of the English word "religion", the Latin religio, was originally used to mean only "reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety" (which Cicero further derived to mean ,,diligence"). Max Müller characterized many other cultures around the world, including Egypt, Persia, and India, as having a similar power structure at this point in history. What is called ancient religion today, they would have only called ,,law".
Some languages have words that can be translated as "religion", but they may use them in a very different way, and some have no word for religion at all. For example, the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes translated as ,,religion", also means law. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial as well as practical traditions. Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between "imperial law" and universal or ,,Buddha law", but these later became independent sources of power.
There is no precise equivalent of ,,religion" in Hebrew, and Judaism does not distinguish clearly between religious, national, racial, or ethnic identities. One of its central concepts is ,,halakha", meaning the "walk" or "path" sometimes translated as ,,law", which guides religious practice and belief and many aspects of daily life.
The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is "something eminently social".
The use of other terms, such as obedience to God or Islam are likewise grounded in particular histories and vocabularies.
An increasing number of scholars have expressed reservations about ever defining the "essence" of religion. They observe that the way we use the concept today is a particularly modern construct that would not have been understood through much of history and in many cultures outside the West (or even in the West until after the Peace of Westphalia). The MacMIllan Encyclopedia of Religions states:
The very attempt to define religion, to find some distinctive or possibly unique essence or set of qualities that distinguish the "religious" from the remainder of human life, is primarily a Western concern. The attempt is a natural consequence of the Western speculative, intellectualistic, and scientific disposition. It is also the product of the dominant Western religious mode, what is called the Judeo-Christian climate or, more accurately, the theistic inheritance from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The theistic form of belief in this tradition, even when downgraded culturally, is formative of the dichotomous Western view of religion. That is, the basic structure of theism is essentially a distinction between a transcendent deity and all else, between the creator and his creation, between God and man.