Religion is a large and diverse set of beliefs, practices, and experiences that encompasses the ideas about life, death, and the supernatural. Its most basic elements are a code of moral conduct, rituals that express belief, and the worship of gods or spiritual concepts. For many people, the experience of religion is profoundly meaningful, and it may play a central role in their lives. However, there is much disagreement about what exactly religion is. Some scholars take a functional approach, and view it as something that provides social cohesion, moral guidance, or direction in life. Others use a more substantive definition, and seek to define it by its essential properties. Regardless of how religion is defined, there are two fundamental issues that all approaches must confront.
First, there is the issue of whether or not religion has a unique essence. Traditionally, definitions of religion have been monothetic, based on the classical theory that a concept should have one or more defining characteristics that make it distinct from other concepts. Monothetic definitions have been favored by anthropologists, who studied primitive societies and tried to determine how religion came into existence.
In this view, religion is an expression of humankind’s search for meaning and a way to deal with death. Other explanations have been offered by psychologists, physicists, and neuroscientists, among other disciplines. They have all pointed to some emotional or psychological need that humans have, and to a desire for a spiritual experience.
Those who use the functional analysis of religion often find that it is difficult to identify what is distinctive about any particular religion. This is because religion serves so many functions for humans that it is hard to isolate what its essential characteristics are. The problem is compounded by the fact that most religious people don’t fit neatly into a single cultural category.
The second major issue about religion is the question of whether or not it has a universal nature. Some scholars have argued that it does. This view is sometimes called realist or lexical analysis of religion, and it has been favored by philosophers such as Xenophanes, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Feuerbach.
In this view, religion consists of a set of beliefs and behaviors that are common to all human cultures. It is also a view that has been criticized by anthropologists who have studied non-Western religions, and by scholars who use a more functional approach to the concept.