What Is Religion?


Faith plays an important role in many people’s lives, providing them with strength and direction when they feel lost or ill. Religious observance and belief also play a critical role in societal stability, helping to prevent and heal problems like crime, drug addiction, out-of-wedlock births, and suicide. Despite its complexity, religion is one of the most prevalent forms of social organization on the planet, and it influences culture and politics in a profound way.

For much of the twentieth century, scholars have sought to define the concept of religion by requiring that it have certain substantive properties. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion, for example, depends on the belief that a group’s practices unite it into a moral community (whether or not these practices involve beliefs in unusual realities). Other functional approaches, such as Paul Tillich’s, define religion as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values and provide orientation for life.

But the notion of a religion that requires certain defining features runs into trouble with the facts of human experience. It is not just that people have a variety of beliefs and rituals, but that these beliefs and practices are often quite different from each other. They might even be described as illogical or unreasonable from the perspective of those who do not share them. That has led to the emergence of “polythetic” approaches that drop the classical assumption that every instance accurately describes a distinct category, and instead allow for more fluid categories, such as religions.

Posted in: Gambling