The Nature of Religion

Religion is a complex cultural system of beliefs, practices and traditions. It ideally serves several functions: It gives meaning to life, reinforces social unity and stability, provides a basis for moral beliefs and behavior, and promotes psychological and physical well-being. Religion can also serve as a motivation to work for positive social change.

People’s definitions of what counts as religion vary widely. Some believe that any belief in an afterlife, supernatural beings or a universal order is a religion. Others define religion more narrowly and include only those beliefs and practices that bring people together to form communities. Still others define religion more broadly and include a wide range of activities such as sports, hobbies and volunteerism.

The term “religion” derives from the Latin word religio, which roughly means “scrupulousness.” In early Western antiquity it was used to describe people’s adherence to rules or taboos or their commitment to certain gods and goddesses. This stipulative definition of religion remains popular today. It has been criticized, however, for its ethnocentric bias and its assumption that the practice of religion has always been present in human culture.

More recently, scholars have developed functional and analytical approaches to understanding religion. Functionalists focus on the social function of generating solidarity and analytical methods are intended to allow one to distinguish between the various forms of religion that exist. These different approaches to defining religion often lead to divergent sets of properties that are identified as essential or prototypical.

As a result, it is common to see debates about the nature of religion that center on whether or not this concept can be defined as a social taxon with necessary and sufficient properties. Some scholars have argued that it cannot, and have thus rejected the notion of an essence of religion.

This view, however, is mistaken. While it is true that one can correct a real or lexical definition of religion, it is not the case that one can correct a stipulative definition. Stipulative definitions are assessed not on their accuracy but on their usefulness, and this assessment is purpose-relative.

Some scholars have argued that, regardless of the merits of a particular definition, it is important to recognize the assumptions baked into the concept of religion that influence the way that it is perceived and utilized in practice. For example, it is widely believed that if one defines religion functionally as the beliefs and practices that generate solidarity or provide orientation in life, it follows that this definition names a true but undiscovered phenomenon, even though some cultures do not share these beliefs. Others have argued that this argument suffers from the same problems as the antirealist objections and that it is better to take a polythetic approach, in which a set of properties that are typical or essential is recognized.