The term religion refers to a set of beliefs and practices that are often considered sacred. It is a genus-concept that encompasses many forms of life, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. The concept of religion is a central one in world history and it continues to be important in the lives of many people.
Many scholars of religion have debated the meaning and boundaries of the concept of religion. Some reject the notion of a thing that can be defined, while others have developed definitions that include such things as religious beliefs and rites. A third approach to the concept of religion seeks to define it functionally rather than substantively, with a view that all forms of life serve some kind of purpose and can thus be called “religions” even if they do not involve belief in any particular unusual realities.
Substantive definitions of religion focus on the presence of beliefs in a particular kind of reality. These definitions of religion have been the dominant ones for most of the twentieth century, but they have lost some traction recently.
Some of the more recent approaches to the concept of religion have sought to define it functionally rather than substantively. Emile Durkheim favored such a functional approach, and it is still a common view among sociologists. Essentially, Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community (whether or not those systems involve belief in any unusual realities).
In addition to this functional approach, there are also more or less traditional monothetic and polythetic definitions of religion. Some of these, such as the definition of religion offered by Martin Buber, argue that religion is a collection of formal statements of beliefs and ritualized performances that can be interpreted in various ways. The problem with this view, according to critics like Richard Dawkins, is that it treats religion as a collection of objects, not a process.
Other people, such as the sociologist Charles Riess, have used the concept of religion to analyze the functions that religious faith and practice can perform. In this view, religion is a powerful force that can promote social unity and stability, strengthen families, encourage learning and economic development, help people control their emotions, foster health, and help with the difficult problems of coping and finding meaning in life.
Those who take a functional approach to the concept of religion are also able to recognize that religion can have negative effects, such as fostering inequality and social conflict and encouraging hostility and violence motivated by differences in religious beliefs. These criticisms have led some people to call for a return to substantive definitions of religion. The President should appoint, and the Senate should confirm, judges who are sensitive to the role of religion in society. In addition, the Congress should ensure that federal agencies respect the right of people to practice their religion freely. In the end, it is not just the individual religious experiences of people that matter, but also the ways in which these experiences are shaped by the cultural context in which they occur.