Religion is a term for belief systems that claim to provide meaning to human life and a framework for understanding the universe. It also includes rituals, symbols, and traditions that help bind individuals to a community and give them a sense of purpose in the face of an uncertain future. Some of the most prevalent beliefs, phenomena, and practices that people use to define their religion are a god or gods, spirituality, faith, morality, and the afterlife.
Some scholars take a sociological functional approach to the definition of religion, which was developed by Emile Durkheim. According to this theory, any system of beliefs and practices that binds an individual into a moral community can be considered religious. Durkheim’s definition is similar to the concept of a religion as defined by theologian Karl von Wolzogen: “Religion is a set of universal principles which, taken together, form a way of living a certain type of life.”
While the functional theory of religion is useful and has been a cornerstone of the discipline, there are some problems with it. Some critics argue that functional approaches are overly simplistic, and that reducing religion to a set of social functions obscures its rich complexity and variety. They believe that to understand religion, scholars should not reduce it to structures and disciplinary practices but should instead look at the subjective mental states that these practices and structures influence.
Others, however, point out that while it is possible to define religion in purely structural terms, such an approach ignores its experiential dimension. This argument is often used by anti-religionists to justify their views that religion should be removed from the world, as it supposedly causes evil and suffering. It is also criticized by those who see the concept of religion as an important part of human life that is being undermined by modernity and globalization.
A third approach to the definition of religion is to consider the various things that are called religions and determine if they have any family resemblance. These types of definitions are sometimes called polythetic or verstehen approaches, and they can be quite successful at providing explanatory frameworks for different aspects of religious life. The problem with these definitions is that they can be difficult to formulate. Moreover, they can often lead to the false conclusion that the various religious systems have a common essence that must be shared for them to belong to the same class.
Still others have rejected both substantive and polythetic definitions of religion, arguing that we should simply study each particular religious system in its own right rather than fashioning a definition before beginning the study (e.g., Harrison 1912, Weber 1922). These positions are often associated with methods of research that emphasize participant observation and ethnography, and they can be particularly helpful in the study of new religious movements, revitalization initiatives, and quasi-religious pursuits that seem to challenge the major religions. Nevertheless, the debates around these issues have continued to be lively.