Religion is the set of beliefs and practices that provide social cohesion and orientation in life. It is also the set of institutions that govern how people interact with one another. The history of religions is an important topic in sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies.
Definitions of Religion: Monothetic & Polythetic
It is common today to take the concept of religion as a taxon for sets of social practices, a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. It is equally common, however, to use this concept to designate forms of life that have not been given names, either by practitioners or by observers, but are common to a geographical area or a group of people.
Many critics of religion argue that it is a modern invention and that the expansion of this category went hand in hand with European colonialism. They also claim that the idea of religion corresponds to a thing-hood that excludes other phenomena such as magic, science, or art.
Those who reject the notion of thing-hood often point to the fact that religious practices vary among cultures and between different groups of people within a culture. This is true for a number of reasons, including the differences in the way people understand and express their belief system.
This diversity may be explained, at least in part, by the way people have historically formulated their sense of the sacred. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed in a primary substance, out of which everything is made. Other ancient philosophers such as Thales (6th century bce) and Heracleitus (flourished c. 500 bce) believed that there was a controlling principle, or logos, behind the various schemes of religious belief.
These philosophers also argued that there is an essence to religion and that it has a positive rather than negative character. This is especially true of the mystical dimension of religion, which is thought to bring about transformations in human beings’ character and behavior.
The problem with this approach is that it is based on the assumption that religion names a universal property, rather than an inevitable aspect of the human condition. This is a mistake, however, for it ignores the way that a social genus, as a social-constructive category, names a variety of properties in an evolving context and that these variations are constantly being refined through comparisons of new and varied historical materials.
Some scholars have argued that defining religion functionally as the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or that provide orientation in life can help to avoid the claim that it has an ahistorical essence. Others have argued that such an approach is unsatisfactory because it requires an excessively deterministic or abstracted conception of the nature of the genus, which is likely to lead to ethnocentrism and to the development of the category’s ahistorical nature.
It is a difficult and contentious task to give an adequate philosophical account of the genus in its multifactorial aspects. This is especially true for religion because it has such a diverse range of practices and because it has been a subject of intense debate and discussion in the philosophy of religion. The challenge for philosophers is to understand religion in terms of the social complexities that it brings about and in terms of the ways in which it can be both good and bad for society.