Many people around the world have religious beliefs and practices. Some people also attend services on a regular basis. These practices help them feel connected with a higher power and offer hope that they will have a purpose in life. Other benefits of religion include community, structure and moral guidance.
As the semantic range of the concept “religion” has expanded, so have the debates about how to understand it. Traditionally, scholars have used a “monothetic” approach to the concept: that is, they have looked for a single defining property that all instances of the term must possess. This approach has had its problems.
The first major problem is that the word “religion” refers to a wide variety of human practices, beliefs and experiences. It is difficult to find a single, essential feature that all such practices must have in order to be considered “religion.”
A second problem concerns the way that the concept of religion has been used in different times and places. For example, it has been used to describe belief in disembodied spirits, cosmological orders and explicit metaphysics. Some scholars have argued that the definition of “religion” should not be restricted to these kinds of belief systems. This has led to the rise of a second type of definition of the concept, which does not seek out a common feature in such belief systems but rather focuses on the functions that these beliefs and practices serve for humans.
For example, Emile Durkheim emphasized that the function of religion is to create social cohesion. Similarly, Clifford Geertz developed a functional definition of religion, which views it as a set of “signposts” for understanding human culture.
Both approaches to the concept of religion have strengths and weaknesses. Substantive definitions are more straightforward to apply but they can obscure important differences between religious practices. Functional definitions, on the other hand, are more flexible but they can lead to misunderstandings about what is truly important in a religion.
Despite the challenges, it is still worthwhile to attempt to define the concept of religion because it can be useful for studying the ways that religions vary and their effects on human lives. The most important task in this endeavor is to develop a definition that reflects the diverse nature of religions and their impact on humans. Fortunately, the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study can provide a framework for doing so. This report includes a survey that asks Americans to rank the importance of 16 beliefs and behaviors that are key features of their faiths. The results show that, in general, the most important elements of a religion are those that people say they actually practice on a daily basis. This demonstrates the close link between what people say they believe and what they do in their everyday lives. This is one of the central lessons from the study. To explore the data further, download the full report. This study is based on an online survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from September to October 2017 among a total of 3,005 adults who were asked about their own religions.