How to Define Religion
Religion is a social category used to sort cultural types. A key issue that has plagued sociologists is how to describe the varying practices that are said to fall under this label. A number of approaches to the problem have been offered, and some are quite controversial.
Some approaches are “monothetic” in that they posit the existence of one defining property that all instances of a religion must share to qualify as such. Other approaches are “polythetic” in that they allow for a variety of properties to be shared by the practices under consideration. The latter approach has gained favor recently because of a growing concern that claims that a particular religion possesses an essential quality are highly ethnocentric.
Emile Durkheim favored a function-based definition, arguing that religion is whatever system of beliefs unites people into a socially cohesive moral community (whether or not those beliefs involve belief in unusual realities). Other functionalists have built on this idea.
Some scholars have objected to all definitions that rely on the notion of beliefs or any other subjective mental states as a means for categorizing religion. These skeptics argue that a social genus cannot be defined in terms of its constituent beliefs, and that instead researchers should focus on the visible institutional structures that constitute a religious tradition. They also point to research showing that those who regularly participate in religious practices tend to have a better quality of life and higher life expectancy than those who do not.