Definition of Religion
Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that provides meaning in life and a framework for understanding the world and the universe. It is found throughout history in every culture and includes a wide range of traditions that have influenced the lives of people around the globe. Some forms of religion, however, have been at times dangerous, leading to the persecution or killing of individuals and entire groups, such as in the case of Jews in Europe during the Nazi era and Muslims in Iraq today. Other times, religions have contributed to a sense of community and stability, as in the case of the Muslim community in France or the Hindu community in India.
The study of religion has focused on understanding its nature and purpose, as well as the ways in which it relates to other aspects of human society, such as culture, morality, philosophy, and science. Religions deal with spiritual and supernatural elements that are beyond the scope of human knowledge, and they often involve a belief in some form of divine or transcendent reality. They can be organized into large-scale and coherent systems, such as the Roman Catholicism with its strong centre of authority and control in the Vatican and clear hierarchy of Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity; or they may be loosely structured and hierarchical, such as Hinduism with its numerous subsystems based on gurus or temples.
While there are many definitions of religion, most include a belief in some form of a divinity or spirit and some kind of organized system that incorporates ritual, morality, and prayer. These definitions vary widely in the degree to which they require belief in an afterlife, a supreme deity or judge, and/or idolatry. They also differ in the extent to which they are substantive or functional, i.e., how much they are rooted in an ancient or contemporary mythology and the extent to which they include specific behaviors and cultural features.
Some scholars have offered formal definitions of religion, which attempt to describe the essential characteristics of the phenomenon. For example, Durkheim argued that religion is a social phenomenon that develops along with other forms of life in the same societies and that its essence lies in its function of creating solidarity. Other scholars have proposed functional definitions that are based on the beliefs and values of religious communities. These include the idea that religion is any dominant concern that organizes a person’s values and Paul Tillich’s definition, which focuses on the axiological function of providing meaning in life.
A common criticism of these formal definitions is that they neglect to take into account the fact that there are a number of different ways in which a phenomenon can be classified as religion. Some of these definitions are too narrow and exclude the views of some peoples. For example, some scholars have criticized Edward Burnett Tylor’s definition of religion as “the belief in the soul and in spirits,” which they argue is too limiting and fails to recognize that there are many other cultures that do not have beliefs in disembodied spirits or in an afterlife.