What Is Religion?


Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and a social organization that people share.

The term is used across disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and cognitive science.

Two basic approaches to defining the term religion have emerged in academic debates. One approach, called “monothetic,” fastens on a single property and claims that all religions share a necessary and sufficient characteristic. The other approach, known as “polythetic,” treats religion as a complex multifaceted complex and does not claim that all religions share a common essence.

Generally speaking, monothetic definitions tend to be more rigorous and recognize more properties than polythetic definitions. They also tend to be more reductive in that they do not consider more than a few properties, such as belief in supernatural beings.

Some scholars criticize monothetic definitions, arguing that they are ahistorical and ethnocentric. They say that because they only focus on belief and personal experience, they only reflect Western religions and fail to include faith traditions that are nontheistic or emphasize immanence or oneness (e.g., Buddhism or Hinduism).

The first signpost to a functional definition of religion is often traced to Emile Durkheim, who defined it as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that unite into one single moral community called a Church” (Durkheim 1912). This characterization reflects the social function of creating solidarity. Others, such as Paul Tillich, define religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices that organizes a person’s values and provides orientation for his or her life.

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