Religion is one of the most widely contested concepts in human culture. It is the subject of debate in a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and religious studies. The disciplinary diversity that surrounds the concept raises two philosophical issues. These are similar to those that are likely to arise for any abstract concept used to sort cultural types, such as “literature” or “democracy”. One issue concerns the semantic range of the concept; the other is whether it is possible to define the term.
Some scholars have attempted to do so by using functional definitions that emphasize the social function of religion (e.g., Durkheim’s definition that religion is whatever binds people together in society; Paul Tillich’s definition that religion is an ultimate concern). Others have rejected notions of thing-hood, arguing that the concept of religion is a social taxon that appears across cultures and thus is pan-human. This approach to the topic has been popularized in recent years by the work of philosopher William Ernest Hocking.
These approaches to the debate over the nature of religion have led to many different definitions, some of which are quite broad. Other definitions are extremely narrow, such as those that argue that religion is only a belief in God or Allah, or some other supernatural being. Most current definitions, however, are more open and flexible. They are usually based on some set of properties that the different religions seem to share. Such definitions tend to be referred to as “open polythetic” because they are polythetic in the sense that different religions may have any number of properties.
Regardless of the specifics of a particular definition, most scholars agree that religion is a powerful force in human life. For some people, it provides a meaning to life and a way to cope with the adversities that come their way. For others, it is a way of understanding the past and the future, and of visiting the past in order to fix or forgive wrongdoing. It is also a way to organize social institutions, providing codes of recognition and expectations for behaviour, and often organizing hierarchies.
In addition, religions help people to recognize the many limitations that stand in their way, and the ways that they might deal with these limitations. They also provide maps of time and space, and make the world a little more predictable so that people can plan ahead and avoid the surprises of life. They are a vital part of the human experience. Consequently, there are very few cultural groups in the world that do not have some form of religion. Nonetheless, there are some who believe that the term is an invented category that went hand in hand with European colonialism. This position is argued most often by people who use the concept to critique Western ideas of modernity. The discussion of this issue has become an important aspect of postcolonial and decolonial scholarship.