How to Define Religion


Religion is a word that is flexible enough to encompass systems with many different impacts on the lives of those who practice them. It is used in many different ways in anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and even cognitive science. There is an ongoing debate over how to define it, with a wide range of perspectives on the concept that cut across disciplines.

One approach is to use a sociological functional definition of religion. These approaches, traced to Emile Durkheim, assert that any system that functions to unite people into a moral community can be considered religion. This definition has been criticised as too broad, but it does provide a useful starting point.

Another approach is to try to discern the characteristics of religions and sort them into categories. This is known as a “polythetic” approach, and it resembles the way that scientists might sort strains of bacteria according to their properties. This approach can reveal surprising patterns and allow us to examine whether any particular characteristic is essential to the concept of religion or merely a property shared by members of the category.

Despite their risk of intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, social oppression, and self-opinionated nastiness, religions are the source of many of humankind’s greatest works of art and architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and explorations of the cosmos that issued eventually as the natural sciences. Moreover, they enable people to live their lives as projects, moving forwards towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures.

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