Religion is one of the world’s most powerful forces, a source of social stability and cohesion as well as a major contributor to the development of human knowledge, the arts, and technology. Yet, scholars have been debating for centuries what exactly it is that makes a religion a “religion”: whether it is a set of beliefs and practices or a way of being in the world. The debates about the nature of religion cut across many disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, and psychology.
The earliest approaches to defining religion began as normative, with the goal of establishing what is true and false. However, the rise of the field of comparative religion and the growing availability of written records from other cultures allowed the study of religion to move beyond a stipulative approach to a phenomenological one, which has proved more fruitful.
Substantive definitions of religion tend to focus on belief, personal experience, and a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural. They are, therefore, often accused of being ethnocentric and fail to take into account faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some versions of Buddhism, Jainism (see Jaina philosophy and Jainism ), and Daoism.
A more recent approach, which aims to describe how religion functions in the lives of those who practice it, has been influenced by Emile Durkheim and other sociologists of religion. Typically, any system of beliefs and behaviors that unites people into a moral community is considered a religion. This functional definition of religion has been criticized as being too broad and as failing to distinguish between religion and the more generalized phenomenon of social bonding.
In addition to these debates about the best way to define religion, there is an ongoing discussion about whether or not religion has a real essence. This issue reflects the fact that there are so many different systems of beliefs and behaviors that are called religions, and that they all seem to share certain things in common. Those who advocate for the existence of a real essence of religion cite examples such as the fact that, in ice skating, there is something about ice and skates that is a common feature of all the sports that are called “ice skating” or the fact that there is something about the way a cat purrs that makes it a distinctively feline activity.
Critics of the idea of a real essence of religion point out that, in practice, it would be impossible to develop a scientific theory that could explain the existence of these overlapping features by referring to some biological or neurological cause. Furthermore, they argue that the use of the term “religion” as a way to sort and organize cultural types raises the same issues as the use of other abstract concepts to sort culture, such as “literature” or “democracy.”