The Definition of Religion
Religion is a social phenomenon that arises out of a human need to have meaning and value in life. It helps people cope with the problems of suffering and death, provides a source of spiritual guidance and a means for getting in touch with a higher power.
The concept of religion was first adapted from the Latin term religio, which means “scrupulousness” or “felt obligation.” In antiquity, it often referred to a set of beliefs and practices that were based on gods and taboos. Today, the term religion is used to describe a number of systems of belief and related practices that are associated with particular cultures and are widely practiced around the world.
Religious studies have a long tradition of discussing the definition of religion. Early writers such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx considered religion a central subject of study in modern sociology.
These scholars identified religion as a social genus in which a system of beliefs and practices unite a group of people in a common moral community. They also argued that the category was not ethnocentric.
Despite these early definitions, debate has raged over the nature of religion for a century or more. Some have criticized monothetic definitions, which fasten on a single property of the concept; others have favored polythetic definitions, which recognize a variety of properties.
Both approaches can serve the same purpose, which is to clarify what it is that distinguishes a social genus from its counterparts. In the case of religion, an open polythetic approach can provide a valuable account of how it operates in a variety of societies. However, in some cases, such as when a person wants to make sure that an evolving social category is not simply ahistorical, a monothetic approach might be more appropriate.
One important difference between the two approaches is that monothetic approaches tend to focus on a specific aspect of the concept and are therefore more likely to identify it as the core of the concept. In contrast, polythetic approaches can be more fluid in their recognition of properties and are thus less likely to reflect an ethnocentric bias.
Many contemporary thinkers have questioned the legitimacy of monothetic and polythetic definitions of religion. They claim that the underlying assumption that a social category has an ahistorical essence leads to the uncritical identification of certain kinds of systems as religions. They argue that the ahistorical element of monothetic and polythetic definitions is a reflection of ethnocentrism and not a necessary implication of the concept.
Another important critique of monothetic and polythetic definitions of the term is that they assume a passive, ideological image of humans. In contrast, a functional definition of religion focuses on the distinctive role that a form of life can play in the lives of its members.
The idea that religion is a form of life and thereby reflects an inherent tendency towards social organization and a sense of shared values is a more realistic view. In addition, this view is consistent with the findings of anthropology and sociology, which have shown that social structure and agency are closely related.