Religion is an umbrella term that has come to encompass a vast array of social practices. Some people argue that the category of religion should be discarded or rethought altogether, and others say that we need to find a way to sort cultural practices into a more meaningful grouping. Yet there are many important and complex things that can be said about the concept of religion, and it is helpful to examine these in light of the philosophical issues that are raised by this contested notion.
Most religions, for example, teach that all human beings are on a journey towards certain kinds of future states of being and that the journey can be made a little bit easier with the help of spiritual guidance and religious community. These goals, or eschatological ideals, are generally acknowledged to be at the most fundamental level of human life as project: they have to do with the ultimate condition of this or any other individual, the cosmos, and even of the universe itself. For some, the journey is a matter of attaining proximate aims, such as achieving a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living. For others, the journey is a matter of attaining ultimates, such as reaching the threshold of the afterlife or experiencing eternal life.
One of the most important and controversial issues surrounding the idea of religion concerns the extent to which it is possible to identify some kind of essential property or essence that all religious traditions share. Some people argue that religion is a social genus and that it can be identified functionally as those practices that generate human cohesion or provide orientation in life; such an approach, however, risks reducing the concept to a collection of stereotyped beliefs and behaviors that are not necessarily common to all cultures.
Other scholars, on the other hand, are hesitant to abandon the idea that there is such a thing as religion. They point out that there is a good deal of historical evidence that some of the most basic religious practices and beliefs have been shared across culture, and that these developments may well have taken place over very long periods of time. Others argue that the modern semantic expansion of the word “religion” went hand in hand with European colonization and that it is therefore unfair to treat a given social genus as pan-human or universal.
Still others argue that the problems with identifying a natural kind definition of religion are so severe that it is simply impossible to achieve. This is because it would be possible to take any one attribute that happens to have the greatest relevance for scientific theorizing—such as belief in gods—and conflate it with religion as a whole. This would create an artificial boundary between what is and what is not explained by the relevant theory, which could be a serious problem. For this reason, some researchers are pursuing a more speculative approach that looks at what makes some theories about religion plausible and other ones less so.