Religion is a taxon for sets of social practices, a category-concept that includes the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It is also a label that may be applied to forms of life not generally recognized as religions, such as ancient Chinese traditions, Taoism, and neopagan beliefs and rituals. This contested nature of the concept has given rise to a debate about how to define it. Some philosophers have advocated defining the concept based on belief in some particular kind of reality, while others have proposed dropping the substantive element and focusing on functions that a religious form might perform.
The word religion derives from the Latin verb religio, meaning “religiousness”, which originally referred to a feeling of scrupulous observance, devotion, or adherence to moral and ethical codes that are not necessarily based on a belief in any particular god or cosmological order. In modern times, however, the word has come to be associated with particular religious beliefs or groups and to a sense of sacredness, transcendence, and spirituality in general. The debate about the definition of religion has been influenced by the fact that, with new religions and revitalization movements arising all the time, there is often no clear way to determine what constitutes a religion, especially if one is not familiar with the practices of those involved (Harrison 1912; Weber 1922).
Some philosophers have argued that it is unfair to hold any particular belief system up as a model for what a religion ought to be like. This position, known as “no such thing” philosophy, is a critique of the idea that a specific set of practices can be defined in terms of some necessary and sufficient properties. Others, including scholars of religion, have sought to avoid the problems that arise from holding up a specific belief system as a model for what a religion should be like by treating the concept of religion as a family resemblance concept rather than a definite essence.
The debate about how to define religion has not only shaped the academic study of religion but also impacted the lives of many people around the globe, and is likely to continue to do so as the variety of forms of religion and the number of religious communities increase worldwide. For example, the concept of religion has been used as a rallying point for political activism against alleged abuses in some countries where religious freedom is curtailed. On the other hand, religious ideas and beliefs can help bring together people who might otherwise have nothing in common and may be a source of comfort and strength during traumatic events in their lives. Moreover, some studies have shown that having a religion can lead to positive outcomes in terms of personal and social well-being. Nonetheless, the complex and dynamic influence of religion in the world is something that should be studied and discussed openly.