Religion is a term that can be used to describe a variety of activities, beliefs, or attitudes. In general, it refers to the human relation to that which is regarded as sacred or divine, and the way people deal with their ultimate concerns about life and death. It can also refer to the human relation to a god or other supernatural entity, or to the relationship between humans and the natural world.
There is no single definition of religion, and many differing ones have been formulated. The most common are that religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that it is a social group (church) that includes everyone who follows it, and that it is the way people think about their world and the fate they have after death.
The modern world presents a new challenge to religion. Endless philosophies, ideologies, and truth claims clamor for attention, and instantaneous media magnify the effects of this proliferation. As a result, individuals may find it difficult to stay connected with their communities, or to make ethical decisions based on what they believe is right.
Nevertheless, the concept of religion has been important in human history and remains so today. It has been an instrument of liberation and an instrument of coercion, a tool for control and a means of creating identity, and it has often been the source of conflict between groups and societies.
It has also been a factor in shaping the arts, the sciences, and technology.
Some philosophers have taken religion seriously, and this has led to a reexamination of religious phenomena. This has included the work of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida.
In the 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) introduced the field of comparative religion. In his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative [to] sacred things,” and described the nature of religion as an organization of behavior and belief that binds its members to a moral community.
One of the key tenets of Durkheim’s definition is that religions are not limited to a set of beliefs and ritual behaviors; they can be polythetic in nature, which is to say that they include other factors such as culture, the material reality of their participants, and social structures. This is an important distinction, because it allows a polythetic approach to the study of religion.
A polythetic approach to the study of religion can be applied to any belief system, including magic systems, cults, and sects. It can allow a broad array of phenomena to be examined in a systematic way, and it can reveal surprisingly complex patterns within the class that lead to explanatory theories.
This is a very useful conceptual approach that should be used by all scholars who wish to analyze religion in a historical context. However, it must be accompanied by a careful description of how the social structures that comprise a particular type of religion have been formed, how the beliefs and ritual practices that constitute it have evolved over time, and why they are so different from those of other societies.