Religious faith and practice play important roles in the lives of people all around the world. Studies show that religion decreases crime, delinquency, out-of-wedlock births, family dissolution, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems. In addition, religious communities are able to address social problems by providing outreach and education programs based on spiritual teachings.
While it is true that people may disagree about what counts as a religion, there is one thing all scholars agree on: Religion is a very important part of humanity’s past and present. No one who wants to understand the human experience should neglect it.
One of the most important developments in modern anthropology has been the “reflexive turn” that began with Foucault’s work on power and knowledge and spread through a series of influential books, including Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (see this article for more on the history of this movement). Asad’s central claim is that the concept of religion as something that exists in every culture is a myth. The reality is that the definition of religion shifts according to one’s assumptions, and those assumptions are inherently shaped by cultural forces.
The most common approach to defining what constitutes a religion is a substantive definition that determines membership in a category by the presence of certain beliefs about a unique kind of reality. This approach is well represented in the works of Emile Durkheim, who defines religion as whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community. A close variant of this definition is that offered by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as all forms of life that share certain mystical beliefs.
A less-common, but still important, version of the substantive definition is that offered by a number of functionalists, who define religion as whatever form of life fulfills certain functions. This approach, which is exemplified by the work of the German American theologian Paul Tillich, leaves open the possibility that some political ideologies might be considered to be religions, as have been the case in the history of the Western world, especially during times of great social upheaval.
Some functionalists also reject the idea that a definition should be monothetic or closed in its properties set, and instead take an open polythetic approach, which allows for both a lexical definition (like that of a dictionary) and a more comprehensive definition of a religion based on the different functions it might serve. However, even an open polythetic definition will leave some controversies about which forms of life to include and exclude.