A religion is a set of social practices, beliefs, and values that are shared by members of a particular group. This concept is used to describe many different kinds of cultural forms, but a few of the most prominent are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
The concept of religion is a complex, multidisciplinary topic that cuts across a range of fields: anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and cognitive science. A diverse array of scholars is participating in the ongoing debate over the meaning of religion, attempting to provide a balanced and well-informed discussion of this complex subject matter.
Definitions of religion vary widely and have been subject to considerable criticism. For example, some critics argue that the modern semantic expansion of the term religion went hand in hand with European colonialism and that this erasure has led to an ethnocentric view of what it means to be religious. Others have argued that religious concepts can be broad or narrow, depending on whether they emphasize belief in supernatural beings or not.
Determining the essence of religion (or what is considered essential for a particular kind of religion) is also often a problem. The simplest approach is to recognize that there are many properties of social formations, such as social practices, that may be common or even prototypical in a given culture, without necessarily being essential. This approach, which is increasingly popular today, avoids a claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence that can’t be explained by a historical account.
Another approach to defining religion is to use a functional approach. This approach is based on the social function of creating solidarity and, by extension, axiological functions that orient people’s lives. Examples of such a definition include Durkheim’s theory of morality and Paul Tillich’s theory of the role of religion in shaping the individual’s life direction.
The distinction between substance and form is a significant one in the study of religion, as many people argue that there are several types of spiritual practices, each with a distinct substance. For example, there are beliefs in the existence of a Supreme Being, cosmological orders, or disembodied spirits. In addition, there are traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, like some forms of Buddhism and Jainism.
In the early twentieth century, Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings”. This idea was later criticized by Rudolf Otto for focusing too much on intellectual issues and missing what he regarded as a more emotional and experiential experience of the numinous, that is, an encounter with an absolute Other by which a person is both terrified and fascinated.
A more contemporary approach to defining religion is to focus on the psychological dimension of the practice of religion. This is an emerging area of research in cognitive science, which examines how people’s beliefs and behaviors are shaped by their experiences.
Psychologists, for example, have studied how people’s perceptions of the supernatural shape their everyday experiences of the natural world and vice versa. They have found that some people are more attuned to the supernatural than others, and that a person’s innate disposition towards the supernatural can influence their beliefs about other phenomena.