Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that center on questions about the meaning of life. It may involve worship of a supreme being.
A number of different philosophers have given different definitions to the term religion over the centuries. Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion in 1871 as “the belief in spiritual beings.” He argued that narrowing the definition to mean the belief in a supreme deity or judgment after death or idolatry and so on, would exclude many peoples from the category of religious. He also argued that the belief in spiritual beings exists in all known societies.
According to Durkheim, religion is a social function that helps individuals and society integrate. He also claimed that it establishes a collective conscience. Talcott Parsons (1937) argued that religions provide a set of values on which individual actions can be based. Milton Yinger (1957) argued that religions provide answers to ‘ultimate’ questions.
Among the most famous and influential philosophers who took religious matters seriously are Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas. In the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Luce Irigary addressed religion in their works.
In the early 20th century, Emile Durkheim characterized religion as a “belief system” that he viewed as helping individuals and society to “integrate.” He said that this is a function that has existed in human societies since prehistoric times but had not been conceptualized as such until modernity.
He believed that this function was essential to the maintenance of human civilization. It was necessary to have a collective sense of the moral and religious values that all members of a society shared, which were able to guide their decisions as they moved through a world in which they were constantly attempting to find solutions to complex problems, such as how to survive and reproduce.
Another functional approach, that of Paul Tillich, is derived from his view that “religion” includes whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not it involves the belief in unusual realities). He said that the concept of religion must include both a social function and an axiological function.
Some of the most important contemporary sociologists have formulated similar definitions. They have argued that the idea of a universal religion is an ethnocentric idea and that there are many different ways in which different societies practice religion.
Polythetic definitions are becoming increasingly popular as scholars attempt to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence. This is because polythetic definitions recognize more properties that are commonly attributed to religion than monothetic ones do.
These include: a belief in a supreme being, the importance of God or divine beings to individuals and societies, and the need for humans to organize their values around these conceptions. They also include rituals and group membership.
These characteristics are what distinguish the various kinds of religions that have been identified over the years. This is why the debate over definitions of religion has been so heated and why it remains ongoing today. It is also why the question of how to define religion continues to fascinate scholars from many disciplines.