What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex, multifaceted, and often controversial phenomenon. It consists of a broad set of beliefs, practices, and institutions that have a powerful influence on people’s worldviews and their everyday behavior. It ideally serves several functions: It provides meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, strengthens moral behavior, and encourages social change.

Despite the diversity of beliefs and practices that can be classified as religion, scholars have found it possible to sort this category into two groups: (1) those that are monothetic, in the sense that they rely on one property for membership (e.g., belief in supernatural beings) and (2) those that are polythetic, in the sense that they rely primarily on some function rather than on a single property (e.g., the ability to bring people together in a community). The last several decades have seen the development of a growing number of “polythetic” approaches that abandon the classical view that every instance that accurately described by a concept will share exactly the same defining property.

The debate over the nature of religion continues today as scholars grapple with how to define it. Substantive definitions, such as Emile Durkheim’s, imply that a religion must be based on belief in a unique kind of reality; functional definitions, on the other hand, suggest that a group of practices can be categorized as a religion if they perform a distinctively religious function—a notion inspired by the idea that bacterial strains can be sorted into distinct categories according to their ability to survive in particular environments.

A popular contemporary approach to this problem focuses on the social organization of religions and their communities. It is argued that a religion must be organized into a community and consist of a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions that are shared by members of the community; it must also be open to outsiders. This approach is useful because it enables scholars to analyze how and why religions evolve over time and across cultures.

Some critics of substantive definitions argue that, in focusing on beliefs and personal experience, they are ethnocentric and fail to consider the importance of faith traditions that emphasize immanence and/or oneness—such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism. Others argue that a definition that focuses on beliefs and mental states is flawed because it ignores the role of institutional structures in generating those beliefs and experiences.

Other critics of polythetic definitions argue that they are insufficiently rigorous; that, for example, a religion could be defined as any group of ritualized behaviors that are shared by a certain group of people. Then, they argue that this would exclude such practices as magic and art. Whether or not the debate over the definition of religion can be settled, it is clear that this concept has profound implications for how societies operate and that it requires careful analysis. Until recently, most attempts to analyze it have been flawed, but the recent emergence of polythetic approaches may mark a turning point in this debate.

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