Religion, in the broadest sense, is a disposition to acknowledge dependence on God and to express this recognition in acts of homage. It involves the will, the intellect, and the emotions. Its concept of Deity arouses hope, and the recognition of man’s helplessness in the face of forces which control his destiny prompts him to do homage to a God who can avert such disasters.
In addition to these basic elements, many other elements are incorporated into the concept of religion. It is common for religious people to believe in the existence of supernatural beings, in the possibility of communicating with the dead, and in a cosmic order governing the universe and human life. A religion may also include a belief in a spiritual hierarchy and a set of moral codes that are interpreted as divinely inspired.
The nature and function of religion have been the subject of much debate in modern scholarship. In particular, some scholars have questioned the validity of the idea that any given culture has a “religion,” and others have criticized monothetic definitions of religion. This has led to the development of more flexible approaches such as polythetic and functional definitions. These more flexible definitions seek to avoid the assumption that a social category has an essence.
These newer methods have influenced the study of religion, creating such fields as the history of religion, comparative religion, and the psychology of religion. They have also challenged traditional anthropological approaches, particularly those of Clifford Geertz. These critics have called for more attention to the meaning of symbols and practices, and have urged that anthropologists recognize the power of culture and society in their analysis.
Those who employ these newer methods have also criticized the classical theory of concepts, which states that any group of instances accurately described by a concept must share a single defining property. This has led to a shift away from monothetic and toward polythetic approaches in the academic study of religion. In this new approach, scholars seek to identify a number of properties that are shared by members of the class and then to analyze how these characteristics interact with each other. The goal is to develop a definition of religion that can be used for all cultures, regardless of whether they believe in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.
Some critics have gone even further, and have argued that there is no such thing as a religion. These critics have argued that the concept of religion is an invention of modern European thought, and that it should be abandoned for people in other parts of the world. This view has become a popular alternative to the classical and polythetic approaches. However, there are those who argue that these criticisms of the notion of religion are misguided. They point to evidence that religion exists in other cultures, and they also note that the notion of a religion can be defined either substantively or functionally.