Religion is a complex, diverse, and powerful social phenomenon. It has shaped the lives of most people throughout human history and continues to do so, making it an important subject for study. Its complexities and power, however, make it challenging to define. This article provides a summary of the history and current state of scholarship on religion, and a discussion of how scholars have attempted to distinguish religion from other forms of belief and behavior.
The most common definitions of religion focus on beliefs and ritual behaviors. They include beliefs in a god or gods, the afterlife, and supernatural beings as well as practices such as prayers, sacrifices, and worship. Depending on how the term is defined, some scholars may also include a sense of morality or obligation, or references to certain writings, persons, or places.
While these definitions are popular, they have several problems. One is that they limit the types of religions that can be considered, since there are many cultures that do not have beliefs or behaviors that would fit the prevailing definitions. Another problem is that they do not address the fact that a religion can be both present and not present in all cultures, and so is not necessarily universal.
Some scholars have tried to avoid these difficulties by adopting a more polythetic approach to the concept of religion. By recognizing that a religion can be a composite of different characteristics, these scholars hope to avoid the claim that a social category has an ahistorical essence. These polythetic definitions are also more flexible than monothetic ones in that they do not fasten on a single property that must be present for something to be considered a religion, and they recognize that some properties are “common” or even “typical” of religions without being essential.