The Definition of Religion

Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and ideas that are central to the lives of people. It is typically associated with a supreme being and may have an afterlife. It also includes a moral code and rituals for life’s major events and minor ones alike. Most religions have a holy text that is interpreted by followers for guidance in everyday life. Religions also usually have a place of worship where followers go to show devotion and reverence to their gods.

A debate over the definition of religion has taken place across a number of disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and cognitive science. Scholars who take a functional approach to the concept of religion tend to be realists. They believe that the term is a social genus that corresponds to a kind of social practice, and that it can be defined by reference to what those practicing it have in common.

However, others are skeptical of the notion of a social genus and instead favor polythetic or family resemblance approaches to the definition of religion. These scholars argue that the various things called religions have no single thing in common — no essence — but only varying degrees of analogical similarity. Hence the use of terms like “family resemblance” and “adequate analogy.”

Some skeptics are concerned that a polythetic definition of religion would lead to a situation in which ice-skating while singing is called a religion despite the fact that it has nothing in common with the religious experience as described by a lot of people. Others point out that the development of a language for social kinds did not wait for a functional definition of religion to be developed, and so there is no reason to think that the word “religion” should be confined to the kinds of practices described by that definition.

A growing body of research suggests that religion has many beneficial effects on society. In particular, it provides a sense of meaning and purpose to many people’s lives, helps them overcome problems, and gives them hope for the future. It also promotes cooperation and civic engagement, and it can serve as a source of inspiration for positive social change. However, it can also reinforce and promote social inequality, as well as provoke hostility and violence motivated by religious differences.

As Americans’ views about the role of religion in American life have become increasingly polarized, the percentage who say that it can solve all or most of today’s problems has dropped from 75% in 1952 to 52% in 2015. In addition, the public is more closely divided than ever over whether religion is important to them and what its role should be in their lives.