Religion is a form of life that is believed to be sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It includes the way people deal with their ultimate concerns about life and death, the nature of the universe and their place within it, or, in more humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion, with the broader human community or the natural world. It also includes the belief that certain texts or people have a special, scriptural status or that some forms of behavior can be said to have moral authority.
There is a lot of variety around the globe in beliefs and practices that people regard as religious. Trying to determine whether any particular set of beliefs and practices is a religion or not poses significant difficulties. The main problem is that there are many different kinds of religions with a vast array of beliefs and rituals, and people find their connection to a religion in a variety of ways. Some are most drawn to the theological beliefs and rituals, while others feel more connected to a religion’s culture or community. Still others may not be at all attached to the religion’s beliefs or rituals but are more committed to its social causes and want to live a religious life, without believing in or following any of its theological teachings or practicing its rituals.
The difficulty with defining religion has led to different approaches. Some scholars have used “substantive” definitions that judge a group as a religion if it believes in a specific kind of reality. This approach has the advantage of being relatively clear and simple but it is now well-known that it is not very accurate. It excludes many groups of believers who are regarded as religious by most other observers, including atheists, deists and some forms of Buddhism and Islam.
Other scholars have used functional definitions that assess a group as a religion on the basis of the distinctive role that it plays in a person’s life. Emile Durkheim’s definition, for example, defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not the practices involve belief in unusual realities). A more modern version of this approach was developed by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.
A third approach is to use a mixture of the two, with substantive and functional elements. This is sometimes called a “polythetic” approach. It is based on the classic view that a concept has a prototype structure, and that any instance of that concept will have the same defining properties as all other instances. It does, however, acknowledge that there are some features of a religion that are always present, regardless of the definition one uses: worship, moral conduct, right belief and participation in religious institutions.
Some critics of the term religion have gone a step further and asserted that there is no such thing as a religion. They claim that the use of the term is an artifact of European colonialism and should be treated as a cultural construct rather than as something that exists in a measurable way in the world.