Religious beliefs and practices vary widely across cultures around the world, but all religions share certain basic features. They all include some kind of belief in a higher power, or god, and they each offer a sense of order and purpose that can help people deal with life’s uncertainties. They also often teach some form of moderation, which can help create stable societies. And they often provide a system for dealing with the afterlife.
The concept of religion has been a subject of intense debate in social science for many years, as scholars grapple with how to define it. There are two basic approaches to the problem: “monothetic” and “polythetic”. Monothetic definitions use the classical view of concepts, which states that every instance of a given concept will have some defining property. Polythetic definitions, on the other hand, assume that a concept can have several meanings at once.
In the past, most efforts to define religion have been monothetic in nature. These definitions used a set of criteria that included, for example, belief in one or more supernatural beings or cosmological orders. There were some people in the past, and there are some today, who do not fit these categories, however, so that it is important to allow for alternate definitions of religion as well.
The second approach to the definition of religion uses a different criterion: it defines religion in terms of the way a culture organizes itself to cope with its ultimate concerns. Historically, this has included such things as a faith in one or more deities, belief that there is a spiritual afterlife, and adherence to a moral code. In modern times, the term has been used to describe even agnostic or secular belief systems.
This approach to the definition of religion has been growing in popularity, as scholars realize that a belief in one or more supernatural beings is not necessary for a practice to be considered religious. Instead, some philosophers are advocating a functional definition of religion. This would allow for such practices as art and music to be included, because they serve a useful function in human lives.
While some of the arguments for a functional definition of religion have been compelling, others have been problematic. For example, there is a concern that such an approach may lead to a “religious pluralism” in which the same activity can be categorized as both religion and not-religion.
In addition, the issue of a semantic range has raised serious philosophical questions about the concept of religion as a taxon of social formations. For example, there are critics who have argued that the idea of religion is a recent invention and that it went hand in hand with European colonialism.
Whether or not this criticism is valid, it does highlight that the term religion is an abstract concept with no precise referents in the real world. As such, it is likely to remain a highly contested concept for some time to come.