Religion consists of social practices that are based on beliefs in distinctive kinds of reality (such as belief in a god). In contrast to other forms of life, such as superstition or magic, religious forms of life tend to be more organized.
A wide range of religious phenomena can be observed across cultures and time. These include rituals and prayers, beliefs, cultural practices, and doctrinal claims. Many people use the term “religion” to refer to certain behaviors and beliefs, such as attending church or praising particular kings.
The word “religion” is also used to refer to a set of beliefs that affect people’s lives, both positively and negatively. These include belief in a god, the belief that one can know or have control over what happens to oneself and others, and the belief that spiritual experiences are essential to human well-being.
When the concept of religion first emerged in Europe, it was largely associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It was a Western concept that was often applied inappropriately to other cultures and regions.
Later, however, scholars began to question the assumption that religious beliefs are an inevitable part of the human condition. These scholars argued that religion is not a universality but rather a product of the way we define it.
A number of different definitions have been proposed for the category of religion. Some of these versions are functional, akin to the way that Emile Durkheim defined it. Some are substantive, akin to the way that Alfred North Whitehead defined it.
In the latter approach, a religion is a form of life that has a significant impact on human well-being and that generates social cohesion. The defining criteria for membership in the religion are the presence of beliefs in a distinctive kind of reality and the presence of social practices that create a moral community.
Other approaches, on the other hand, rely on a non-substantive definition of religion that is functional. These definitions emphasize a relation between metaphysics and axiology, which is the account of the nature of the universe that is a central component of religious prescriptions for life.
This approach to religion has been criticized by some, arguing that such a definition would lead to a generalization of the term that is not true of other forms of life. It would also be susceptible to the problems outlined above in the previous section, since it focuses on a single attribute, such as belief in gods, which may have nothing to do with what makes religion a meaningful category.
These criticisms have led to a number of new approaches to the study of religion, including what are now known as polythetic definitions. These definitions attempt to explain the emergence of religion by looking at its features.
Frequently, advocates of polythetic definitions will array a master list of “religion-making” features and claim that if a phenomenon has a large enough number of these features, then that is sufficient to make it a religion.