What Is Religion?


Despite its ubiquity in most cultures, there is no agreed definition of Religion. Most approaches to this concept operate as taxons, classifying a variety of beliefs and practices as belonging to the same group. Some of these approaches are “monothetic” in that they employ the classical view that a group can be accurately identified by a single defining property. Others are polythetic in that they use multiple properties to construct a classification.

Traditionally, the most widely accepted definition of Religion is that it is a social phenomenon involving beliefs and practices that are shared among a community. This approach is based on the theory that religion is a system of values and a framework for making sense of life’s many complexities.

Some theorists have sought to depart from this model. For example, some scholars have pushed the Humean claim that religion is merely a particular feeling that is noncognitive. However, this romantic suggestion collapses on the inability to explain how a feeling can be defined as a particular one without also including some form of cognition.

More recently, psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have argued that religion evolved to benefit large moral communities by providing stories and rituals that create a strong sense of belonging. This explanation meshes well with research showing that religious people tend to live longer, be more likely to avoid illegal drugs and alcohol, and report higher levels of happiness.

Another approach to Religion is the functionalist theory developed by Durkheim and subsequently refined by Paul Tillich. According to this theory, a religion is a particular concern that organizes a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve unusual realities). Increasingly, scholars have been using the lens of Asad’s reflexive turn in the study of culture to examine assumptions baked into the notion of a Religion.