The concept of religion cuts across disciplinary lines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, psychology, and even cognitive science. Its central role in the personal and social lives of two-thirds of the world’s population makes a well-defined definition important to scholars and society as a whole. In addition, a strictly secular approach to public policy, psychotherapy, or education cannot fully serve these populations without understanding their faith. The debate over the meaning of religion has sparked heated disagreement among researchers and has influenced the way that the term is used in everyday language. This article will help orient readers to the current state of scholarship on this topic and introduce two philosophical issues that arise for this concept: (1) whether one can conceive of a substantive definition of religion that is capable of sorting practices into a category, and (2) how a formal definition may be formulated such that it does not depend on the existence of any particular religion or belief system.
Sociological functional definitions tend to emphasize that the concept of religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that unite individuals into a moral community. Emile Durkheim framed this idea as the “glue that holds the social fabric together,” and its intellectual descendants generally agree that any system of beliefs and behaviors that fulfills this function is a religion.
A problem with this approach is that it tends to overemphasize the importance of supernatural elements in a religious system, leading some to assert that this definition excludes the majority of world religions. Moreover, many critics charge that the focus on belief and the dichotomy between natural and supernatural forces reflects a Western religious bias and fails to take into account faith traditions that stress immanence or oneness, such as Buddhism or Jainism (see Buddhism and Jainism).
Other approaches have sought to define religion by describing its internal workings. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl developed phenomenology, which seeks to uncover essences of types of experiences, and this has had an important influence on the study of religion. This is a different approach from that of psychology, which is more oriented toward facts and thus prone to see the category of religion as a static typology.
One of the main problems with this approach is that it often fails to consider the social context in which religion exists and the role it plays there. For example, a religion might function to bring people together, but it may also impose hierarchies on the members of that group and contribute to conflict and violence. This criticism has led to the development of what is sometimes called the “reflexive turn” in scholarship, which tries to move the lens on the social and cultural objects we study by reminding us that they are constructs invented at a certain time and place for particular purposes and therefore may not be objectively “there”. This new lens focuses on the process of construction and its implications for how we understand the concepts we examine.