How to Define Religion
Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics. It can include a belief in one or more gods, the idea of an afterlife and various spiritual beliefs, such as atheism, monotheism, polytheism, theism, agnosticism, dualism, and pantheism. It can also include a variety of worship-related practices, including prayer, meditation and various rituals. It is often accompanied by moral codes and an emphasis on right behavior. It may even involve the development of social institutions such as churches, temples, mosques and synagogues.
For a long time, scholars have categorized religions in terms of their beliefs about a distinctive kind of reality. But in the twentieth century, a different approach emerged, one that drops the substantive element and defines religion by the role that a form of life can play in people’s lives–in other words, by a functional definition. One can see this approach, for example, in Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community.
The debate over how to define religion has prompted criticism that it is too broad and has obscured important differences between religious groups. It has also led some to argue that the concept of religion is a political invention and that it should be abandoned, a claim that sometimes goes hand in hand with the assertion that there are no real religions. For this reason, some think that it would be better to treat the concept of religion as a contested social taxon and focus instead on the kinds of things that are likely to have family resemblances among different cultures.