The Definition of Religion

Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that unites people into a moral community, gives them a sense of purpose, and teaches them to live in harmony with the universe. In addition to a belief in a supernatural power, most religions include a code of conduct, a sacred place or object, ritual, myth, symbols, a unified narrative about the universe and human life, a leader or prophet with godlike status, and a concept of salvation.

Some scholars use the classical definition that religion is whatever group of practices and ideas unites people into a community of moral and ethical conduct. This approach, which is called a monothetic definition, was first used by Emile Durkheim in 1912, and has been supported by anthropologists studying modern religious communities, archaeologists who have studied ancient societies, and historians who have examined the historical evidence for religion.

Other scholars reject this idea that there can be a single, substantial definition of religion. These critics point out that the word “religion” is a cultural construct, and that its current usage as a category reveals its arbitrary nature. They argue that a better way of thinking about religion is to consider its function in society, and that it has many functions.

In recent decades, scholars have started to examine the definition of religion in a different way, using an approach that is called a polythetic definition. This definition uses the same four features as a monothetic definition, but it allows for more subtlety and nuance. It also recognizes the important role that social constructivism can play in analyzing the definition of religion.

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