Today the concept religion is applied to a wide range of disparate practices and beliefs. It is a taxon with paradigmatic examples that include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as well as non-biblical beliefs like Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and the Baha’i faith. Often these various practices are grouped into a “world religion”, but they also overlap and interact with other faiths, non-faiths and secular worldviews. Moreover, the boundaries between religion and other things such as philosophy, culture, tradition or myth are often blurred. It is therefore important to understand the evolution of this concept and how it relates to other concepts such as secularism.
The word religion comes from the Latin religio, which means “scrupulousness” or “conscientiousness”. It was adapted to describe the behavior of ancient people who adhered to ritualized activities that involved taboos, vows and promises, as well as to their feelings about these activities. This suggests that early users of the term understood religion to be a type of cultural formation that is universal or at least pan-human.
Some scholars treat religion as a social genus and use it to categorize and sort cultural types in much the same way that we might think of a language or democracy as a family-resemblance concept. Other scholars have a more substantive approach to religion and use it to name certain features of the human condition. For example, Durkheim defined religion in terms of its function to create social solidarity, while Paul Tillich viewed it as a dominant concern that organizes one’s values and provides orientation in life.
These functional definitions of religion often rely on certain assumptions about human nature. They assume that humans are essentially passive, and they rely on their social institutions to act as transmitters of charisma or legitimacy that impose their own views on others. In contrast, substantive definitions of religion posit that religious people are active agents who hold and defend particular viewpoints.
Whether we define religion functionally or substantively, many scholars find it difficult to define the phenomenon. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that religions evolve over time and across cultures, and most religions share some features while retaining others. Furthermore, when new religious movements and quasi-religious pursuits emerge, these definitional issues resurface (see e.g. Hervieu-Leger 1987). In light of these problems, some scholars advocate that we should study what is actually being practiced before fashioning a definition. They argue that a definition that threatens to drive theory and determine conclusions would skew research in an undesirable way.