What Is Religion?

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Religion is a broad genus of social formations. It can encompass the practices of so-called world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as those whose practitioners have not given them a name. It can also describe practices that are so ephemeral, so intangible, or so difficult to observe that they barely qualify as a thing at all: invisible spiritual forces, inexplicable life events, and even that most basic of human needs, breathing, can be understood as religious.

In modern times, there has been much debate over the nature of Religion. Some critics have argued that the concept of religion is an invented category, a set of ideas and values developed as part of a culture. Others have taken this argument farther, arguing that religions are not real or natural but are actually tools of power — that they are constructs that can be used for good and evil.

A number of scholars have attempted to analyze Religion using a variety of theoretical frameworks and methodologies. Most of these attempts have been “monothetic,” operating under the classical view that a concept will accurately be described by a single property. Recently, however, a more flexible approach has emerged – the “polythetic” approach, which treats concepts as having a prototype structure. Both types of analyses have their merits, but they do not avoid a fundamental problem: that of identifying the properties that distinguish a Religion from all others.