The Definition of Religion

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Religion is a set of beliefs, values and practices that people adopt in order to structure their lives. It is one of the most powerful and influential concepts in human history, affecting everything from ethics and morality to economics and politics. It has also been a source of great division, particularly between those who have different views from those of the majority of their group.

While scholars from many disciplines have contributed to the definition of religion, including anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, theology, psychology and most recently cognitive science, there is still disagreement about its nature and purpose. There are two fundamental philosophical issues that have to be faced in any attempt to understand this elusive concept.

The first question is whether or not there is a real essence that can be identified. The orthodox answer is that there is, but it has been impossible to pin down. In fact, the very act of attempting to define religion has created a problem. It is almost impossible to give a true and accurate description of any phenomenon that could be called religious, because there is simply too much diversity for the term to apply to all of them.

This is because there are so many facets of religious life, from beliefs and rituals to moral codes and art forms. The vast number of possible phenomena that could be called “religion” has led some philosophers to rethink the way in which they think about this category. Instead of looking at it as a taxon with necessary and sufficient properties, they have moved towards a model in which the term is used for a family-resemblance concept that is flexible enough to contain a wide variety of actual instances.

A good example of this is the concept of cultus, which encompasses activities such as sermons, commemoration or veneration (of deities or saints), feasts, trances, matrimonial and funeral ceremonies, pilgrimages, the wearing of certain symbols, and alterations to the body such as male circumcision. This approach to understanding religion is very broad and inclusive, whereas traditional definitions of religion are often narrowly focused on a belief in spiritual beings.

Other philosophers have emphasized the functional aspect of religion, such as Emil Durkheim, who defined it as the social glue that holds a society together, and Paul Tillich, who argued that it is a dominant concern in an individual’s life that organizes his or her values. Others have criticized this functional approach, arguing that it overlooks the fact that religion is also an experiential phenomenon, and that to focus on functions removes the importance of the subjective experiences that make up the essence of religious experience. In addition, some argue that to reduce the concept of religion to institutions or disciplinary structures ignores the important role of beliefs in human religion. It may seem avant garde today to use terms such as constellation, assemblage or network to describe religion, but the notion of treating religion as a complex is actually quite old and is common in other categories such as culture or literature.