What Is Religion?

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Whether or not it’s God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism, Religion draws followers together and holds them to high moral standards. It’s about how people believe and act in their lives, how they manage their relationships and how they view the world. It includes beliefs and practices, a group identity, social structures and rituals. It’s also about a person’s feelings, thoughts and emotions.

Scholars have tried to analyze religion using different methods and perspectives. Most attempts are called monothetic, meaning they operate with the classical view that every instance accurately described by a concept will share a single defining property that places it in that category. The last few decades have seen the development of “polythetic” approaches that break this classical assumption and treat concepts like religion as having a prototype structure.

One polythetic approach to religion, developed by Clifford Geertz, focuses on the relationship between worldview and ethos. He suggests that a religious tradition that grounds normative prescriptions for life and society on a worldview is a religion (see Schilbrack 2022).

Other scholars try to avoid referring to a specific set of beliefs or behaviors as religion. They argue that there are too many definitions of religion and that the definitions have been constructed to serve particular social interests, such as fostering group cohesion, encouraging obedience, maintaining moral standards and social control. They call for an understanding of how a set of beliefs becomes recognized as religion and who has power to determine which phenomena are considered to be religions.