How to Define Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon that has had an equally complex influence on the history of human civilizations. It has been both a source of unity and of division, of peace and of war, of hope and of despair. It has been a force for liberation and a force of coercion, and its institutions have been based both on voluntary cooperation with government power and in antagonism to it. Religion has also been a catalyst for the development of knowledge, art, and science.

One central question that has to be answered is how to define the concept of religion. This issue is of great interest to scholars in anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, and psychology as well as the cognitive sciences. Until recently, most approaches to the definition of religion have been “monothetic,” which means that they operate with the classical view that a concept is accurately described by any set of instances that share a defining property. The last several decades have, however, seen the emergence of “polythetic” approaches to this question. These approaches operate with the more modern prototype theory of concepts, which holds that every concept is accurately described by a set of polythetic features that constitute a prototypical structure.

A major debate centers on whether or not there is such a thing as religion as a natural kind, in the sense that it could be reliably identified and defined by its characteristics. If there is such a thing, then it would be possible to develop a scientific theory that causally explained why and how these characteristic features are reliably found together in what we call religion. This, in turn, would enable us to explain why and how religion inspires people to believe the things that they do.

Most academics, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, tend to take a polythetic view of the nature of religion. They believe that there are several overlapping features that are needed to describe any particular religion, including faith, belief, ritual, and practice, as well as a person’s underlying values. These elements vary across cultures and time, but they are present in most religious traditions.

Sociological functionalists, like Emile Durkheim, argue that any system of beliefs and practices that functions as a cohesive force to unify a moral community into a single unit can be called a religion. More recently, Paul Tillich has argued that any dominant concern that serves to organize a person’s values can be deemed a religion.

Some critics have pushed this argument further, claiming that the term religion is a cultural construct that is historically and geographically specific. They have argued that it is not appropriate to apply this broad semantic range to phenomena like magic, art, and science, which are clearly not religions. They have also argued that the expansion of the use of this concept went hand in hand with European colonialism, and thus should be abandoned. Other critics have gone so far as to declare that there is no such thing as a religion at all, and that any attempt to define it must be rejected.