Religion is an enormously important social institution for most of the world’s population. It provides a way to navigate life’s tunnels and see the light at the end of them, gives meaning and purpose to human existence, promotes psychological and physical well-being, functions as an agent of social control, serves as a guide to moral behavior, and sometimes inspires people to work for social change.
Most of the world’s 5.6 billion people belong to one of more than 20 different religions. Although a religion may have many distinctive features, most of the world’s religions share certain general characteristics: a system of belief; an emphasis on a sacred book or texts; sacred places and objects; sacred rituals and ceremonies; a concept of salvation; the idea that some deity is in control of all events; and, for some, a leader or founder who acquires godlike status.
Some scholars have used the term religion to describe any system of beliefs or practices that are viewed as having spiritual power and authority. Others, however, have used the term to refer only to those religions that incorporate a system of ethical guidelines and rituals. Still others have sought to define a religion by looking at its components and functions, with some proposing a list of “religion-making” features and arguing that any phenomenon that has a sufficient number of them is a religion.
A more substantial approach to the definition of religion has been proposed by Clifford Geertz, who used a functionalist lens to analyze religious traditions. He argued that a religion was a tradition that grounded normative prescriptions for life and society in a coherent worldview (or ethos), which in turn was grounded in a belief in an ultimate reality or transcendent principle.
This functionalist approach has been criticized by those who believe that the emphasis on belief and personal experience, and the dichotomy between natural and supernatural, excludes faith traditions like Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, which are nontheistic. Also, they argue that it fails to take into account the role of religion as a source of moral strength and power in society, which is a fundamental part of its social function.
Another problem with this view is that the definition of religion has been historically influenced by European cultural peculiarities. Consequently, there are some who argue that it should be replaced by a more neutral, broad concept of religion.
The concept of religion as a social kind may seem an abstract and difficult concept to pin down, especially given the vast variety of practices now considered to be religious. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that the development of a concept for religion as a social kind is at least as old as the development of language itself and thus at least two thousand years old. The emergence of the concept for religion as a social kind is perhaps a reflection of the fact that it is hard to understand human culture without some framework of reference.