Religion is the set of beliefs, values, and practices that people hold as sacred or holy. It has various functions, including giving meaning to life, providing social cohesion and stability, generating spiritual and moral guidance, offering psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change.
The word “religion” derives from the Latin religio, which means a devotion or attachment to something or someone. It is a contested concept, and there are many different theories of religion. Some scholars have argued that religion is an abstract concept, while others have claimed that it refers to specific religious beliefs and practices. There are also a number of different approaches to the study of religion, and these differ significantly among scholars.
Traditionally, the study of religion has been undertaken by a variety of disciplines, including history, philology, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The development of the discipline of Religious Studies, however, resulted in a division of labour, with different scholars specializing in particular traditions, and each using their own methodology and terminology. As a result, the field of Religious Studies is highly fragmented, with no consensus on how best to approach the study of religion.
Many definitions of religion rely on functionalist or analytical approaches, rather than on a teleological or metaphysical model. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as the set of activities that generate solidarity, and Paul Tillich used the term to describe whatever is the dominant concern that organizes a person’s values (whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities).
These types of definitions treat the concept religion as a taxon – a class to which some individuals belong and which has a certain set of properties. In this way, they are similar to the way that scientists use a taxonomy to sort organisms according to their characteristics. This approach is sometimes called a polythetic approach, and it has several advantages.
It allows for the discovery of patterns in the data, and it also makes it easier to explain why some groups of practices have a higher or lower incidence of “religious” characteristics than other groups. The disadvantage is that it often leads to the conclusion that some groups of practices are not religious, which can be problematic for those who believe in them.
Another challenge comes from the fact that there are groups of people in the past and in the present who have no views of an afterlife or supernatural beings, and who do not believe in any explicit metaphysics. These groups may still have a religion if they believe in a transcendental reality, but it is difficult to identify it using the traditional methods of religious study.
Scholars of religion have developed a wide range of approaches to this question, ranging from the polythetic to the structuralist. The former focuses on the idea that religion is a phenomenon that exists outside of human culture, while the latter argues that it is a social construct invented by humans to give them a sense of order in an uncertain world.