Religion is a complex human phenomenon that has been subject to intense scrutiny from scholars in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and psychology. The debate about the definition of religion has cut across disciplinary boundaries and involves an interaction between many different theories.
The term “religion” is used to describe a range of activities and beliefs that people practice as part of their culture. It is also a way of dealing with the most profound concerns that humans have about life and death, the universe, and their place in the world. Some forms of religion emphasize supernatural beings, such as gods or spirits; others, like monotheism, have a more naturalistic view of life and believe in a single creator god. Various types of ritual activity may be included in a religion, and there are often ideas about what should or should not be done to follow the teachings of a particular faith.
Scholars who use the term “religion” tend to take one of two approaches when describing its nature. One approach is a substantive definition that specifies certain characteristics of religion that must be present for it to qualify as such, and the other is a functionalist approach that defines religion by the specific roles that it plays in societies. Both of these definitions have weaknesses.
Substantive definitions, for example, are vulnerable to the criticism that they are overly broad and include things like belief in ghosts as a religion, while they also tend to exclude faith traditions that do not have supernatural elements, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Moreover, these definitions tend to create a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural and thus may be biased towards Western forms of religion.
A more recent approach is to use a verstehen (“to understand”) model of the concept of religion, in which we think about the ways that religion operates in societies and the role it plays in the world. The advantage of this approach is that it moves away from the classical view that any occurrence that can be accurately described by a concept will share a defining property, and that each occurrence is a unique instance that must be evaluated on its own merits.
This approach is also more resistant to the criticism that it treats religion as a set of cultural phenomena and fails to consider the ways that these phenomena interact with each other and with the broader social environment. The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that it can be difficult to apply at a practical level because the definitions are not necessarily clear and unambiguous. Also, this model requires us to have some knowledge of the religious worlds that are being studied in order to assess whether or not the definition is working well.