Religion is a complex, powerful, and pervasive human phenomenon. It is an important element in most people’s lives and a major part of their identity. It provides moral and ethical frameworks for conduct and beliefs, a source of spiritual guidance and comfort, and a means to understand and explain the world around them. It is an area of interest for psychologists and other social scientists as well as theologians and philosophers.
Attempts to define religion are varied and debated. A common approach is to examine the functions of a religion: for example, the German sociologist Emil Durkheim defined it as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motives thus generated seem uniquely realistic.” Another functional definition was provided by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not the concerns involve belief in unusual realities.”
More traditional definitions are based on beliefs or concepts regarding a divine being. These include monotheism, theism, and polytheism. Others are more general: they may focus on the way a person deals with life’s ultimate concerns, such as death and one’s destiny afterward; or the way a person treats what is sacred, absolute, spiritual, or divine.
Like all social institutions, religion changes across time and cultures, though it often retains older elements. It can promote rapid change in society, but is more likely to evolve at a slower pace and to mix elements of different traditions. For instance, a religion may adopt new ideas from science or modernity while maintaining its core beliefs and practices.
Many critics of religion argue that it is not a “thing.” They use this as a basis for rejecting substantive definitions of the term, and for denouncing any idea that religion consists of a set of unified beliefs or practices. However, this view of religion is a minority viewpoint.
A number of social scientists have taken a more holistic, multifaceted view of religion. These scholars often use a methodology called “polythetic analysis.” This method allows them to look at a group of phenomena and classify them into categories based on their common features. It is an alternative to the classical theory of concept formation, which states that each object must share a defining property in order to be accurately described by a particular term.
The polythetic approach to religion enables researchers to examine the whole picture of a particular group of people and to see how the various aspects of their beliefs and practices fit together to form a coherent whole. This kind of analytical process can reveal the underlying similarities between religions as well as the differences. It can also help identify a common ground between disparate religious groups, which can serve as the basis for dialogue and mutual understanding.