Religion is a broad category that encompasses beliefs, behaviors and practices, institutions, rituals, rites and symbols. It is a social construct that has existed as long as humans have. Every society has practiced some form of religion, though the nature of that religion has varied widely from one culture to the next. The ubiquity of religion has led to debate about what phenomena are included and excluded by the term. Two philosophical issues have emerged over the definition of religion. One concerns the concept of essence. The other concerns the notion of social taxons, or social categories that sort cultural types.
Some scholars have proposed that religion has an essential property that makes it distinct from other activities. The most common of these proposals is that it requires belief in some kind of transcendent reality. The anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim took this approach, and it was also the view of many twentieth-century philosophers. In contrast, other scholars have dropped the requirement for a supernatural deity and instead have defined religion as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community. This approach is often called a functional definition, and it has been influential.
A third approach is to treat religion as a complex that comprises a set of interrelated elements. The sociologist Émile Durkheim and the anthropologists Clifford Geertz, Margaret Mead and George Homans take this approach. They argued that religion has three interrelated components: cultus, doctrinus and ideational elements. Cultus refers to the ritual acts that express and aid emotions. Doctrinus refers to ideas and teachings that help explain these emotions. Ideational elements refer to the symbolic meanings that these concepts have for individuals and groups. These components interact to produce a religious valuation, which is a core element of religion.
This definition and approach have gained popularity in recent years because they avoid the claim that a religion has an ahistorical essence. They also recognize that the concept of religion is a social construct, and it is important to understand how it has evolved over time.
In addition, they allow for the possibility that a particular religion may change over time and even cease to exist. The evolution of the concept of religion has been accompanied by the development of other social scientific and humanistic methods for studying it.
During the past forty years, there has been a “reflexive turn” in the social sciences and humanities as scholars pull back from the objects they study to examine how they are constructed. This has led to a growing emphasis on the ways that theories, concepts and methodologies are biased by cultural assumptions and values. It has also contributed to the recognition of the need for greater sensitivity in the study of religion and other cultural phenomena. In this context, it is particularly important to avoid stereotyping and ad hoc classifications when defining religion. These approaches are likely to lead to the creation of a minimal concept that ranks different religious phenomena as mere variations on the same theme, rather than seeking to discover an adequate conception that is appropriate for a fundamentally empirical discipline.