Religion has been a major force in human history in all places and times. It has promoted both equality and hierarchy, it has motivated both generosity and hostility, and its beliefs and practices have shaped knowledge, the arts, and even technology. Religion has been a source of both liberation and oppression, and it is still active in our lives today.
It may seem avant garde to talk about religion as a “constellation”, an “assemblage”, or a “network” but such descriptions reflect the longstanding fact that many scholars have viewed the concept of religion as multifaceted or multidimensional. Emile Durkheim, for example, used the Latin term fides, fiducia, and fidelitas to describe various aspects of a religious way of life that could be characterized as both cognitive and observable.
The most commonly cited substantive definition of religion involves belief in spiritual beings. Edward Burnett Tylor argued that narrowing the definition to this minimal criterion excluded some cultures from the category of religion and that such a criterion was “flawed”.
Functional definitions of religion focus on what a religion does for its members, rather than what it believes in or whether or not it is conscious. For example, Paul Tillich favored the notion of a religion as whatever dominates people’s interests and provides them with a framework for arranging their values. While such a criterion is flawed because it excludes some people, and because it does not include the idea that a religion has to believe in unusual realities, it does capture some of what makes religion important for some people.
More recently, scholars have shifted their attention from substantive to functional definitions of religion and are finding that there are many different ways that people connect with their religions. For some, the theological beliefs and rituals are central; for others, it is more about belonging to a community.
For still others, the religion they practice offers guidance for living a good and ethical life that often includes putting the well-being of their fellow humans above self-interest. They may also find that regular participation in religious rituals, such as prayer and worship, promotes health by helping them to manage stress, control their emotions, and stay physically fit. Moreover, the mix of individuals in a religious group can expose them to views that are surprisingly diverse and encourage them to stretch their perspectives and to wrestle with insights they might not have gained on their own. The study of Religion is thus rich, complex, and exciting. It is an essential area of study for all of us.