Religion is a concept that has been reworked and expanded to cover a remarkably wide range of cultural phenomena. This has caused two philosophical problems to arise for the contested concept, problems that will likely also be encountered by other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (such as “literature” or “democracy”).
A first issue is that of substantive definitions. A substantial definition of religion would include beliefs about the unseen, along with feelings like fear, awe, wonder, reverence, gratitude, and love, as well as institutions such as prayer, worship, sacrifice, and so on. The problem here is that such a definition might seem to support an ideological image of humans as passive social actors.
It is therefore common today to reject substantive definitions of religion, arguing instead for a functional approach. This view is taken by some to be more scientific, and to avoid the problematic image of the religious person. Nonetheless, the functional approach has its own problems.
Durkheim and others argue that the concept of religion consists of two elements: belief in powers higher than humans, together with attempts to propitiate or please them. They point out that people do not arrive at the intellectual basis of religion independently, but rather through authoritative teaching. In the case of most religious traditions, this is achieved through the observance of sacred rites and customs.
In addition, some philosophers have suggested that the notion of religion contains a sense of spiritual urgency that accompanies it. These are the thinkers who cite the experience of “awe,” or the sense of the “unknown” as the source of its appeal, and who argue that the spiritual dimension is what makes religion unique among cultural phenomena.
Some of the most famous Continental philosophers have taken up the topic of religion, including Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), and Simone Weil (born 1929). But there are also some important modernist philosophers who have given serious consideration to the subject, such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1940) and G.E. Moore (1923-1990). In short, there is no one-size-fits-all definition of religion. But there are a number of features that all religions have in common. These are discussed below.