Religion has had a role in the lives of two-thirds of all human beings for thousands of years. It has shaped culture, philosophy, morality, and the interpretation of certain books. Yet its exact definition is still a matter of debate. One common view sees religion as an individual’s relationship with a higher power. Another views it as a particular worldview, or system of beliefs that gives meaning to life and organizes people’s lives. Still others describe religion as a set of rituals and practices that connect individuals to one another and to the divine.
Many studies of religion have focused on the ways in which it influences people’s emotions and behaviors. A wide range of disciplines have been enlisted to study religion, including history, philology, literature, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Each of these studies, however, has produced a different theory of religion and a different approach to the question of how to define it.
The debate has been framed as one between “monothetic” and “polythetic” approaches to studying religion. Monothetic studies take the classical view that a concept is accurate when it accurately describes all instances of it. Polythetic approaches, on the other hand, use a prototype structure to treat concepts as having a set of properties that all members share.
Developing a definition for religion has proved to be difficult, partly because there is no single case that fits the concept perfectly. Moreover, the different disciplines that have studied it often have competing definitions and theories, so finding a consensus among them has been nearly impossible.
Most of the attempts at a definition of religion have been “monothetic” in that they have favored a particular feature of the concept as its defininition. For example, some academics have argued that the only true religion is belief in gods. But such an argument is problematic because it assumes that the only reason that something might be considered a religion is its belief in gods. Any explanation of why a phenomenon is a religion would be an explanation of why it shares the feature that distinguishes it from all other things.
The problems with defining religion have also been compounded by the fact that the term is a vague and subjective one. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the word is commonly used in a broad sense to refer to any activity involving prayer, behavior, or rituals. It is hardly surprising that people use the term in this way because there is a lot of evidence that religion has positive effects on individuals, families, communities, and states. It improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. It reduces the incidence of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness.
The development of a definition for religion is important because it will allow us to understand the diverse ways that faith enables people to cope with life’s stresses. It will enable us to develop more effective psychotherapy and public policy programs. Moreover, it will allow us to distinguish the beneficial effects of religion from the harmful effects.