Religion is a system of thought, feeling, and action which
is shared by a group and which gives any member of that
group an object of devotion. Usually, religion concerns
itself with that which transcends the known, the natural,
or the expected. It is an acknowledgment of the
extraordinary, the mysterious, and the supernatural. The
religious consciousness recognizes a transcendent, sacred
order and elaborates a technique to deal with the
inexplicable or unpredictable elements of human experience
in the world or beyond it.
The evolution of religion cannot be precisely determined
because of a lack of clearly distinguishable stages, but
anthropological studies of primitive and isolated cultures
in various periods of development have suggested some of
these stages. The Australian bushman, considered to be the
most primitive aborigine in the world, practices Magic and
fetishism, but does not consider the powers therein to be
unnatural. Inability or refusal to divide real from
preternatural and acceptance of the idea that inanimate
objects may work human good or evil is sometimes said to
mark a prereligious phase of thought. This stage is
sometimes labeled naturism or animatism. It is
characterized by a belief in a life force which itself has
no definite characterization.
The second stage of evolution, represented by many Oceanic
and African tribal beliefs, includes momentary deities and
special deities. In this stage man has distinguished
between natural and supernatural forces. This development
is related to the emergence of objects of devotion, to
rituals, to priests and medicine men, and to an individual
sense of group participation.
The third stage of development, usually heavily interlaced
with fetishism (magic, momentary and special deities,
nature gods, and deities personifying natural functions;
e.g. the Greek sea-god, Poseidon or Ra, the Babylonian
goddess of fertility, emerge and are incorporated into a
system of Myth and ritual.
Beyond this suggestion of stages, the variety of religious
systems and experiences does not permit of any evolutionary
classification . However, theologians and philosophers
agree that sophisticated religions embody a principle of
transcendence, i.e., a concept, sometimes a god-head which
involves man in an experience beyond the satisfaction of
his immediate personal and social needs, an experience
known as "the sacred" or "the holy."
In the study of comparative religions certain
classifications are used. The most frequent are Polytheism,
in which there are many gods, and Monotheism in which there
is a single god.