Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that binds people together into a moral community. Its ubiquity in world history is reflected in its profound influence on human affairs—from compassion, love and peace, to hatred, fear and xenophobia. Yet, despite its dark sides, the world’s religions contain some of humanity’s most sublime moral teachings and spiritual resources.
Most attempts at defining religion have been “monothetic,” meaning they operate with the classical assumption that any instance that accurately describes a concept will share a single, defining property. However, in recent decades, there has been a rise of “polythetic” approaches that are based on a prototype theory of concepts.
In general, the term “religion” refers to a set of beliefs and practices about the supernatural and its relation to man and the universe. It also refers to the cultural system of rituals, prayers, scriptures and religious law that supports these beliefs and practices.
Some philosophers have defined religion in terms of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. For example, Hegel characterized it as the knowledge acquired by the finite spirit of its essence as absolute spirit; Max Muller defines religion as the perception of the infinite; and Friedrich Schleiermacher sees it as the determination of man’s feeling of absolute dependence. Others have characterized religion more abstractly in terms of the functions that it plays in a society, describing it as a societal tool for moral ordering or as a mechanism for promoting human happiness. Emile Durkheim’s functional definition of religion is a prominent example.
Attempts to define religion have been complicated by the fact that religion is, by nature, both subjective and objective. The subjective side of religion is a matter of the will, the disposition to acknowledge our dependence on God by acts of homage. It involves the intellect and imagination as well as emotions such as hope, confidence, love, patience, humility, the purpose of amendment and the aspiration towards high ideals.
The objective aspect of religion is, on the other hand, a social phenomenon that is reflected in the organization and structure of religious communities. It includes the rituals, laws, scriptures and other symbols of their beliefs, but also their teachings, rites and customs. It also consists of the authority which religion’s elders exert over their followers.
For this reason, some have argued that any definition of religion that doesn’t describe these social phenomena is incomplete or misleading. In particular, they argue that to understand the social phenomenon of religion as a system of beliefs about an invisible divinity is to miss the point altogether. These objections have been met with a variety of responses, including those from scholars who defend the idea that a polythetic approach to concepts is more accurate than a monothetic one and the need for a prototype theory to help explain it. Still, most philosophers agree that a definition of religion should be both substantive and functional, incorporating a belief in an invisible divinity as well as the structures that produce it.