Religion is a term used to sort a wide variety of cultural practices. In its most basic sense, it refers to a system of beliefs about what lies beyond the world of human affairs. It may also encompass a group’s governing structures, its conceptions of the divine, or its practices of worship and devotion. Historically, scholars have debated the merits of monothetic and polythetic approaches to this concept. Those who argue that the word religion describes a unique and distinctive kind of life are often referred to as realists while those who assert that it is simply an analytical taxon used to sort and categorize cultural phenomena are called functionalists.
In the twentieth century, however, an alternative approach emerged that dropped the substantive element from the definition of religion. This became known as a functional approach to the concept. One sees a functional definition in Emile Durkheim’s (1912) idea that religion is whatever system of activities unite a number of people into a moral community (whether or not these systems involve belief in any unusual realities). A similar approach was developed by Paul Tillich’s (1957) idea that religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.
Many scholars who take a functional approach to the concept of religion rely on ethnographic and participant observation research methods. These techniques make it possible for social actors to define their own religions. A key aspect of this process is that social actors must decide whether something satisfies a particular definition of religion, and they can change their minds about what qualifies as a religion in light of their experiences with it.
As a result, some observers criticize functionalist views of religion as a social control mechanism. They argue that such views impose a particular ideological image of human beings upon them by describing them as passive and docile. These critics sometimes argue that substantive definitions of religion resist this same image and, instead, depict human beings as active agents who are able to direct society.
Other observers point out that functionalist views of religion have a number of limitations. They argue that the idea that religion is a system of values that can guide human behavior is problematic in a world in which scientific findings and philosophical criticisms have the potential to upend established religious convictions. Furthermore, they point out that the reliance on structure/agency arguments tends to obscure the fact that many religions are not hierarchical or even organized in a central hierarchy.
Some scholars point out that the idea of religion as a taxon for groups of practices is itself Western in origin. They believe that the concept was first applied to non-Western cultures in an inappropriate way, and that this has led to an overemphasis on the subjective aspects of the phenomenon. They also contend that the notion of religion fails to distinguish between the varying types of human experience. Thus, they suggest that it might be better to use a “family-resemblance” concept for the concept of religion, in which case it is possible for different types of religious life to be distinguished from one another without introducing subjective states.