The Concept of Religion
When describing their spiritual or philosophical beliefs, people often use the word religion to describe a system of ideas about life, death, morality and the meaning of existence. They may also consider themselves religious because they practice a certain group of rituals or behaviors, or they subscribe to a particular set of beliefs. Religion is so pervasive in human society that many scholars believe it has shaped nearly every facet of human life.
There is a wide variety of religions in the world today, from Judaism, Christianity and Islam to Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The term religion has also been used to describe a group of beliefs or practices shared by a region or culture, for example, the “world religions,” or the religions of China, Japan, or ancient Rome.
Regardless of its specific definition, the concept of religion is used to refer to a broad range of cultural phenomena and has become a key point of contention in social science research. It has been criticized by some scholars for being too subjective and for focusing on hidden mental states, but other scholars such as Clifford Geertz and Margaret Coggins Smith have emphasized the importance of taking religion out of its subjective contexts to understand how it shapes people’s worldviews.
A debate continues on whether it is best to approach the study of religion using a monothetic or polythetic method. Some scholars, such as Charles Alston, advocate a polythetic approach to the concept of religion, which recognizes that different beliefs and practices may share some characteristics but does not stipulate how many properties a belief or practice must possess in order to be considered religious.
Other scholars, such as Paul Tillich, have argued for a monothetic approach to the concept of religion, which emphasizes that it is a function in society and that people act on their beliefs in order to create a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. These functions include creating and sustaining social solidarity, motivating people to work toward positive social change, providing psychological and physical well-being, and giving individuals a way to cope with the pains and difficulties of life.
The debate over how to define religion is rooted in the complexity of the phenomenon itself. It is difficult to categorize the thousands of belief systems that exist in the world and a variety of methods have been developed to try to do so.
Scholars have categorized them based on their central beliefs, behaviors and rituals. They have also been ranked by their relative social significance and power. Some of these categories have been defined by the number of adherents, and others by their effect on political and social institutions, such as law, business, health care and education. A recent trend has been to evaluate the influence of religion on a culture, by assessing its impact on family and other social institutions, or by looking at the effects that different cultures have on each other.