Religion is the set of beliefs, values, and practices that guide people’s lives in some way. Millions of people around the world live according to the principles of their religion, believing in one or more gods and having a belief system about how they should live their life. It is the basis of many societies and cultures. Religion can be a source of comfort and meaning to those who follow it. The word religion comes from the Latin root religio, which means “to bind.” It is believed that following a religion binds people together in a community, not only through their shared practices but also by the ideas they hold about the world and life.
There are many approaches to defining religion. Some define it in a functional or sociological way. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices that functions to unite individuals into a moral community. Others, such as sociologist George Kidd, have used a more substantive definition of religion, which includes belief systems about the ultimate meaning of life and supernatural referents. This kind of definition tries to resist the stereotype of the passive human being and the idea that the concept of religion is merely socially constructed by society.
In recent years there has been a revival of interest in a formal or typological approach to the concept of religion. This approach tries to find the characteristics that are most reliably found in cases of religion and seeks to develop a theory that explains why these features tend to appear together. Often, however, the theory developed is only an account of how the phenomenon of religion operates in specific circumstances or cultural contexts rather than a theory about the essence of religion itself.
Functional and typological approaches to the concept of religion have a long history, with Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) exemplifying this type of approach. Other writers who have used this methodology include Boyd, Cooley, and Wach. These types of definitions are open polythetic in that they allow any number of properties to be included in the category of religion.
A second strategy is to use a closed polythetic or monothetic approach, wherein the set of properties that is deemed to comprise the concept of religion is fixed. It is sometimes argued that this approach is more useful than an open polythetic approach for analytical purposes, since it allows researchers to focus on specific aspects of the phenomena under study.
Regardless of the approach taken, there is always the possibility that an analysis will fail to capture some aspect of the phenomenon under investigation. This can be due to factors such as the difficulty of identifying the essential properties of the phenomenon, the limitations of current data and methodologies, or the fact that some elements of religion may not have been studied at all.
There are also some who have argued that it is impossible to find a definition of religion that encompasses the whole range of beliefs and behaviors associated with the concept. The problem is that in order to accommodate all of the different concepts of religion, it would be necessary to include beliefs and behaviors that most people do not consider to be religious.