What Is Religion?

Religion is the social organization that enables people to make sense of their experiences, their lives and their worlds. Its impact on the world is enormous. It is the basis of many political systems. It has an effect on the daily lives of billions of people around the globe and it influences the world economy in important ways. Religion also plays a significant role in cultural life and can be seen in the arts, such as literature, film and music.

A number of theories have tried to understand the phenomenon of religion. These range from stipulative definitions that identify it as the belief in a unique kind of reality to functional definitions that focus on how religious phenomena bind together people into moral communities, whether or not they believe in strange realities. Neither approach is without problems. Stipulative definitions are often based on religious authority and they tend to exclude non-believing groups, while functional definitions risk obscuring the complex processes that give rise to religious practices and that make them meaningful for individuals and societies.

The concept of religion is so broad that it has proved difficult to analyze it. Traditionally, scholars have sought to define religion in terms of some property that distinguishes it from other phenomena, but this approach has failed. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion as the belief in spiritual beings while Emile Durkheim defined it as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community, regardless of whether or not these beliefs involve supernatural beings. These kinds of stipulative definitions fail to recognize that people do not think about religion in terms of some hidden mental state but rather in terms of a variety of activities and institutions (de Muckadell, 2014).

More recently, it has become fashionable to use polythetic sets of definitions that avoid the assumption that an evolving social category has a defining essence. Such definitions have been criticized for being nebulous and not providing enough guidance to guide analysis. They are nevertheless popular with many scholars who wish to avoid the claim that there is something about religion that is essential and timeless, such as a belief in God.

Polythetic sets of definitions are becoming increasingly popular in scholarly discourse because they allow us to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of religion. They also help to avoid the problem of what might be called the “relative vs. absolute” approach to religion that has been so pervasive in the study of this topic for so long, which focuses on differences between supposedly different forms of religion while failing to take into account that these differences are not so fundamental as they seem.