Religion is a complex social phenomenon that involves belief in and devotion to supernatural beings or forces, the idea of a sacred or holy realm, religious art and literature, and a wide variety of rituals. People around the world practice religions that differ greatly from one another in their beliefs, practices, and cultural contexts. These religions have often served many functions in societies over the centuries, including providing a sense of meaning and purpose, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent for social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work toward social change.
In modern times, the study of religion has become a multidisciplinary field that draws upon research from anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and religious studies, among other disciplines. There is ongoing debate about what the concept of religion encompasses, and how best to define it.
Scholars have argued that there is something distinctive about religion that distinguishes it from other types of activities. This point of view, which some have called the sacredness argument, has been a central concern of many scholars, particularly in the social sciences. Its proponents believe that a proper definition of religion should take into account the uniqueness of the concept of the sacred, and how it influences religious beliefs and behaviors.
The debate about what constitutes religion has also included many different approaches to the concept itself. Some, such as the sociologist Emile Durkheim, have used functional definitions. In his view, a religion is whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values (whether or not that concern includes belief in any unusual realities).
Others have viewed the definition of religion as a metaphysical problem, using concepts such as ontology and cosmology. A number of historians have adopted a historical approach, while other scholars have focused on the cultural context of religions and the nature of religious beliefs and practices.
In addition to these substantive and functional approaches, some scholars have used polythetic definitions. These approaches seek to combine the best of both substantive and functional definitions by specifying a set of characteristics that must be present in a given instance of religion, while allowing for some degree of variation within this set. These include the concepts of symbolism and sacrament.
The use of polythetic definitions has been influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance. For example, he points out that all of the things that are called games share certain crisscrossing and partially overlapping features, but a game is only a game if it has these particular characteristics. The goal of polythetic definitions is to create a taxonomy that will be useful for studying religions across cultures, as well as in different times and places.