Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives. It addresses the ultimate concerns of life, such as what one believes happens after death and how to deal with life’s difficulties. Religion teaches people how to act morally and how to live together. It can also include a belief in gods and spirits and in texts that have scriptural status. Some religions include miracles and spiritual experience. Others try to explain the natural world and human behavior.
The word “religion” is a compound of two Latin words, re and legere (“to read”). The first recorded use of the term in English was in 1640.
Historically, scholars have defined religion in different ways. The earliest definitions focused on the belief in multiple gods and goddesses. These early religions arose around 3000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Later, more monotheistic religions developed. These included Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Many of these religions believe in an afterlife and that their followers will be judged by god or gods, while others believe in reincarnation or karma.
More recently, scholars have focused on the practices and institutions that make up religion. They call this a functional approach. These definitions differ from a substantive definition, which defines religion by what it is in itself (e.g., a belief in gods). Substantive definitions are problematic because they force scholars to accept any definition that is offered. They also impose an ahistorical essence on a social phenomenon that is constantly evolving.
Functionalism has a number of problems, including the fact that it is based on a presupposition that people want to be good. Another problem is that it can easily become ethnocentric. For example, in some contexts, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that bans employers from discriminating on the basis of religion, a functional definition would include all beliefs that have the potential to unite a group of people into a moral community.
Some scholars have tried to solve these problems by rejecting the notion that religion is a thing in itself. They argue that a substantive definition of religion ignores the fact that it is not something that can be defined in terms of its own properties. They have developed what are called polythetic definitions of religion, which recognize that there are a number of properties that are common or typical to all religious groups.
Other scholars, especially those who are critical of the history of religion and its relation to European colonialism, have criticized this approach. They argue that it is difficult to analyze the functions of religion without introducing mental states and that to do so would shift attention away from the structures that produce religion. They have also argued that to reduce religion to its practice is to miss the point. They argue that a more useful and analytical approach is to see religion as a tool for evaluating and valuing human societies and the natural world.