Religion is a social phenomenon characterized by beliefs, practices, and behaviors that give people a system of meaning and purpose in life. This includes a system of beliefs about supernatural or spiritual forces and powers, about salvation and afterlife, about morality and personal conduct, and about a sense of unity with others. It also usually involves a belief in a god or some form of religious concept, a code of behavior, a clergy or priesthood, and symbols, days, and places that are sacred to the believers.
Many different definitions of religion have been developed over the centuries. One of the most popular is the sociological functional approach, a view traced to Emile Durkheim (see Durkheim, Emile ).
According to this view, any system of beliefs and practices that functions as a cohesive force to bind individuals together into a societal unit can be properly understood as a religion. The difficulty with this view is that it inevitably excludes traditions which have not been designed to function as such, such as those which ground normative prescriptions for life and society on a worldview.
Another popular way of defining religion is the so-called polythetic definition, which identifies a set of features that must be present for something to be counted as religion. This type of definition is not a new one and has been around for some time, but it has gained prominence in recent years.
The idea that a set of features must be present in order for something to be called religion has been influenced by classical theories of concepts, which hold that any accurately described phenomenon will share a defining feature that puts it into a certain category. These theories have also been criticized because they make too much of the word “religion,” which has evolved out of historical peculiarities in European culture and has not yet been widely adopted as a term for anything.
Those who favor the polythetic definition of religion often argue that this kind of a definition makes it easier to explain and distinguish between what is actually religion and what is not. This is particularly true in the case of scientific theorizing about religion, since such theories primarily try to answer questions of psychology and the cognitive sciences, not primarily those of history and culture.
While a number of these approaches have been successful, it has become increasingly clear that no single, definitive, logically consistent and non-arbitrary set of features can be identified for a phenomenon to be counted as religion. In order to address this, some scholars are trying to move away from traditional monothetic definitions and toward what have been referred to as “monothetic-set” definitions of religion that treat it as a complex, multifaceted social phenomenon rather than a single entity with a limited set of characteristics.
Some of these theories rely on the prototypical theory of concepts, which holds that every concept will have a set of prototypes that it shares with other accurately described phenomena. These “prototypes” are usually based on the things that most closely come to our mind when we hear the term religion, i.e., those things that we believe to be most characteristic of Western religion.