What Is Religion?
Religion is a social genus with a range of characteristics that vary between different cultures. For example, some religions have a belief in disembodied spirits while others do not. In general, however, it includes codes of recognition and of expected behaviour that impose hierarchies on people. It also teaches how to interpret and deal with limits on human life. It may also teach about the afterlife and cosmological orders.
A large number of theories have been advanced to try and define religion. Some are formal, seeking to find how religious features can be grouped together, even on the basis of secondary traits. These can include beliefs in gods, a view of the universe, and specific rituals.
Others are functional, such as Emile Durkheim’s, which focuses on the role that a religion plays in unifying a society and generating solidarity. A variant on this is Paul Tillich’s, which defines religion as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values, whether or not they involve belief in unusual realities.
In recent times, scholars have been taking a reflexive approach to the concept of religion and asking what it actually is and what functions it serves. This has involved looking at the categories that we use to classify religion and asking how they have been constructed over time, for what purposes, and by whom. It has also included trying to identify what is genuinely common across religions, avoiding those features that are merely the result of cultural peculiarities.