Religion is a broad-based set of beliefs and practices that impact an individual’s worldview, values, morality, cultural and spiritual identity, philosophy, behavior, and approach to certain writings, persons, or places. It is often a source of comfort during difficult times and is generally thought to bring people together. However, it can also be a source of conflict, division and stress. The word itself is a vague term that can be difficult to define, which is perhaps why it has inspired so many different theories and arguments throughout history.
It is widely accepted today that the concept of religion can be understood as a social taxon, sorting groupings of human activities into categories based on their shared similarities. Traditionally, these taxons have been “monothetic,” meaning they operate with the classical view that every instance that accurately describes a particular class of social formation will contain a unique defining property that distinguishes it from other examples of the category. The twentieth century saw the rise of a competing alternative, a “functional” definition of religion that drops the notion of a unique defining property and defines membership in this genus purely in terms of the distinctive role that a form of life can play within a moral community (whether or not it involves belief in any unusual kinds of reality).
This functional approach to analyzing religious phenomena has gained widespread acceptance. As a result, there is now a broad range of scholarly debate over the precise meaning and boundaries of religion. Various writers have emphasized the importance of examining the context in which religion occurs and have argued for the need to be more aware of the cultural assumptions baked into the concept itself. In this way, scholars have sought to move beyond a monothetic approach to religion and to recognize the ways in which its assumptions can distort our grasp of historical realities.
Ultimately, both monothetic and functional approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, a functional definition tends to be too inclusive; it is possible that almost any movement with a system of beliefs and a committed group of followers could be classified as a religion (such as communism).
While a functional approach is useful for studying religious processes, it can become problematic when applied to the actual experience of religion. As a result, scholars have also looked for ways to refine the concept of religion in order to make it more specific and accurate.
One common theory is to include a fourth dimension that accounts for the fact that all religious groups, whether they are monistic or not, have a material culture that includes their bodies, habits, and physical culture in addition to their social structures. This is a useful addition to traditional models of religion that have emphasized the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good. The resulting model of religion has been called a “four-sided” model of religion. In this way, it can be compared to Ninian Smart’s famous anatomy of religion.