The Debate Over Religion


Religion is the form that human beings give to their most important values and the way they express those values. It is the primary way that human beings commit to those values, live by them, and, at times, die for them. It is the most intense and comprehensive form of valuing that humans have ever devised.

People need faith, meaning and value in order to orient themselves to life in this world. There are other sources of those values—people can have faith in science or in their family, for example—but there is no substitute for religious valuing. That is why religions are so powerful and why they have had such an impact on people throughout history.

The field of study of religion arose with the recognition that there are many different religious traditions and that they have played a crucial role in shaping both individuals and societies. Nevertheless, a debate over how to define religion continues to rumble across academic disciplines, with scholars in anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, psychiatry, sociology, and religious studies all taking part in the debate.

In the debate over definition, a distinction is often made between substantive and functional definitions. Substantive definitions focus on the beliefs and practices that people hold in their religious community, while functional definitions take into account what a religion does in the world, such as its moral teachings or the ways it binds together members of a group. A second difference concerns the use of a taxonomy to classify religious phenomena. A taxonomy provides a structure for organizing and studying a group of things, and there are many different models for creating a taxonomy, including the famous three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Some scholars have suggested adding a fourth C to the model—the material culture of the religious group—to acknowledge the ways that, even when not explicitly expressed, religious groups have a shared physical reality that can be recognized and studied.

A further concern is that, in focusing on beliefs and personal experiences and in assuming a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, substantive definitions are ethnocentric, ignoring religions like Buddhism (see Buddhism) and Jainism that are nontheistic. Critics of this approach have also argued that the development of language for social kinds is a relatively modern project that went hand in hand with European colonialism, making it inappropriate to apply this concept to non-Western traditions.

In the wake of these criticisms, some scholars have adopted a polythetic view of religion, arguing that there are no single, unambiguous characteristics that distinguish a religion from other things. They resemble each other in the same way that all games have certain overlapping and crisscrossing features, which can be referred to as “family resemblance.” In this way, a polythetic understanding of religion allows for a more holistic approach to the study of it, while also acknowledging that there is no such thing as a universally applicable and neutral definition of religion.