What Is Religion?
Religion is a set of beliefs that have profoundly shaped the world views of millions of people, from isolated tribes to vast empires. It involves a belief that one or more supernatural beings control human affairs. It also refers to an organization that teaches religious principles and encourages believers to act according to those principles. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto and more are examples of religions.
Scholars of religion use two main approaches in defining religion: functional and substantive. Functional definitions often look for a specific structure that is common to all cases. For example, Durkheim used a formal definition in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and then applied it to a functional analysis of religion. Other scholars have followed the same strategy.
On the other hand, substantive definitions of religion attempt to rework the concept so that it contains a more sophisticated image of humans as active social actors. This is more common in research that utilizes a verstehen approach to meaning, which seeks to understand religion in terms of the way its adherents perceive and interpret their own societies.
Psychologists, for instance, use functional definitions, while neuroscientists and biologists might take a substantive approach. Still, it is difficult to pin down a single definition that is equally valid for all cultures and times. It is even more difficult to describe religion in a way that makes it comparable across different cultures, since many religious phenomena are so varied. Nevertheless, there are some general features that can be recognized.