Religion is a term used to describe the beliefs and practices that people in many cultures have regarded as the most significant features of their life. It has a complex and rich meaning and history.
It is a social taxon, like any other, and one must be able to understand it as such in order to determine how it fits in with the rest of human life. Its range of semantic properties has changed dramatically over the centuries.
Real definitions of religion, such as those offered by Clifford Geertz (1970) or Talal Asad (2002), are substantive in that they determine the membership of practices within this social genus on the basis of their belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Such a belief is usually in the form of disembodied spirits or cosmological orders, but it may also refer to a more abstract concept of a supernatural worldview.
Functional definitions of religion, on the other hand, are less substantial but still imply a belief in some distinctive kind of reality. These include a system of beliefs and practices that unite a number of people into a single moral community (even if these are not religious in the traditional sense).
Polythetic approaches to this definition of religion, on the other hand, take the classical view of concepts, that every instance accurately described by a given concept will share a defining property that identifies it as belonging to that category. Such a polythetic approach is preferable to monothetic accounts, which treat all instances of a given taxon as identical, and it can give a clearer picture of how this taxon works.
However, such a polythetic account also opens up the possibility that some instances of a taxon, when accurately described by a concept, will not share any particular property that makes them fit in with the rest of life and that, for this reason, might be treated as outside of this taxon. This is especially true if those instances of the taxon are said to be characterized by some form of symbolic interaction.
These types of interactions can involve the experience of crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, feelings of oneness with those around you, and other emotional or psychological states that can be deeply moving. Moreover, they can provide a way for people to interact with one another on an intensely personal level and, in the case of rituals, can be transformative experiences for some.
The function of religion is to provide several benefits to the individual, including the following: It gives him a meaningful life, reinforces his sense of social stability and unity, provides a framework for his interpretation of reality, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate him to work for positive social change. It is also a means of providing support and comfort during times of distress or crisis.