Religion is a general term that covers a wide variety of spiritual and supernatural beliefs and practices. It encompasses many aspects of life, including worship and devotional activities, moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions. A central concept in religion is that of a higher power or spirit, and it is also generally believed that this spiritual power presides over the natural world and is the cause of all that exists.
Despite the great diversity of religions around the globe, there are some common features to them all. The word itself is derived from the Latin religio, which means “to bind.” Religion is a binding force that brings people together and allows them to express their beliefs.
The most widely accepted definition of religion consists of a set of four criteria: (1) the belief in a higher power, (2) the creation and maintenance of social groups, (3) ritual behaviors, and (4) confessions of doctrinal beliefs. Historically, philosophical attempts to analyze religion have been monothetic in the sense that they use one or more of these criteria to identify what constitutes religion.
These criteria were first developed in ancient times by thinkers such as Thales (6th century bce), Heraclitus (4th century bce), and Anaximander (5th century bce). All of them posited that there is some control factor over the clashing forces of nature—a unified something that transcends all the different gods that are associated with the various natural phenomena. This underlying, controlling principle is sometimes called the oneness of being or the supreme reality.
Later, philosophers such as Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Paul Tillich (1903-1957) offered functional approaches to the definition of religion. The former uses the idea of religion as the dominant concern that organizes a person’s values, while the latter relies on an axiological function.
A more recent development has been the emergence of a polythetic approach to the study of religion, whereby scholars examine the phenomenon not by comparing it with other religions normatively but rather by studying them phenomenologically. This has been exemplified by the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), among others.
Even so, a more general definition of religion can be useful for those who study the subject. It can be a way to avoid the confusion that often arises when the term is used in a context with an emphasis on behavior or certain practices. This broad usage can also be helpful for those who want to distinguish between a specific activity and other activities that share some characteristics with them, such as philosophy or literature. The distinction is important because a lot of important ideas can be considered to be religious in some way—though they may not have any particular view of the afterlife, supernatural beings, or explicit metaphysics. For this reason, a more general and less contentious definition of religion could be: “a system connected to spiritual and supernatural components that uniquely impacts its adherents’ worldview, behavior, beliefs, culture, morality, and approach to certain writings or persons.” (Southwold, 1978). The boundaries between these systems of belief are not always easy to draw.