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Definitions of Religion

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Religion is a term for a class of social formations that share certain features, including beliefs about the nature of life and the universe. It also includes practices, rituals, and social institutions. These are typically based on devotion to particular gods, spirits, or cosmological orders and include a belief in the afterlife. In its most common form, it also provides believers with structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of meaning in their lives. It is a very ancient phenomenon, and it is possible that the concept of religion existed even before humans developed language.

The word religion comes from the Latin religio, a compound of religios and re, meaning “to bind.” Since the dawn of human civilization, people have bound themselves to spiritual or moral systems. The earliest systems, such as the henotheistic belief of Thales (6th century bce) that water and fire are the primary substances from which all else is made and the cosmological scheme of Heraclitus (5th century bce), imply the existence of a supreme being or powers controlling the world. Since then, many cultures have developed organized religions to answer the most fundamental questions about life and death, such as what is the ultimate nature of reality and what is our place in it.

Traditionally, scholars have defined religion in terms of its beliefs and practices. These are called substantive definitions. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices unite a community into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Max Weber and Karl Marx took this approach further by studying how the development of social kinds depends on the existence of religious forms.

There are, however, other ways of defining religion that do not depend on a belief in an unusual reality. For example, the sociologists Paul Tillich and Sigmund Freud both took a functional approach that defines religion as whatever system of beliefs and values determines a person’s axiological orientation in life (whether or not those concerns involve unusual realities). This is called a “functional” definition.

A third, and arguably the most sophisticated, way of defining religion is to treat it as a complex rather than as a single entity. This is a view that has long been advocated by scholars in the fields of anthropology, history, and philosophy. The most recent versions of this view take into account both the ways that the concept of religion is constructed and the fact that it has evolved over time.

Some critics of the concept of religion have gone so far as to say that there is no such thing as a religion. These critics claim that the notion of religion is an invented category that was used to impose Western culture on other cultures. Other critics have taken this argument a step further by saying that it is dangerous to use the term religion because it obscures important differences between cultures and even within the same culture over time.

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