There is no simple definition of the concept of religion that fully articulates all its dimensions. Encompassing spiritual, personal, and social elements, this phenomenon is however, ubiquitous, appearing in every culture from prehistory to the modern day—as evidenced in the cave paintings and elaborate burial customs of our distant ancestors and the continuing quest for a spiritual goal to life.
For Palaeolithic people—and indeed for much of human history —religion provided a way of understanding and influencing powerful natural phenomena. Weather and the seasons, creation, life, death and the afterlife, and the structure of the cosmos were all subject to religious explanations that invoked controlling gods, or a realm outside the visible inhabited by deities and mythical creatures. Religion provided a means to communicate with these gods, through ritual and prayer, and these practices—when shared by members of a community—helped to cement social groups, enforce hierarchies, and provide a deep sense of collective identity. As societies became more complex, their belief systems grew with them and religion was increasingly deployed as a political tool. Military conquests were often followed by the assimilation of the pantheon of the defeated people by the victors; and kingdoms and empires were often supported by their deities and priestly classes.