Religion is a remarkably diverse social construct that encompasses a wide range of beliefs, practices, and institutions. It can help explain natural and supernatural phenomena, provide mechanisms for maintaining psychological and social well-being, offer a framework for moral/ethical reasoning, and give a sense of meaning to life. Moreover, some religions are quite complex social institutions that can organize large groups of people into coherent and cohesive social groups.
It is also important to note that many religious beliefs and practices evolve within a particular culture or group of people over time, responding to the needs of people in a particular situation. For example, a new idea or practice might be adopted by a religious community in response to a change in a local environment or the changing fortunes of the economy. It is also important to recognize that the concept of religion is a social taxon, a term for sorting cultural formations into categories with some kind of family resemblance.
The evolution of a social taxon can be influenced by the development of language and the creation of concepts such as “religion.” It is therefore important to understand how the development of the concept of religion as a social taxon has influenced its use in the study of religion.
Traditionally, scholars have approached the definition of religion in two ways. One approach, called monothetic, focuses on a single essential property or set of properties and uses this as a criterion for what defines a religion. For example, Tylor’s monothetic definition of religion requires that a form of life include belief in spiritual beings; a form of life lacking this feature does not qualify as a religion.
A polythetic approach to the definition of religion tries to consider a variety of criteria. A good example of this is the way that the social scientist Rodney Stark has used his five-feature model to analyze religions.
In recent years, there has been a reflexive turn in the study of religion as scholars pull back and examine the constructed nature of this concept that they had previously taken for granted. This is an attempt to avoid a tendency toward analytic rigidity and to recognize the fact that the boundaries of what defines a religion are constantly shifting. This approach has been associated with the growing popularity of interdisciplinary work in the study of religion. Among these disciplines are history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. Each of these disciplines approaches the study of religion from a different perspective, and their contributions often interact to produce a more holistic understanding of this vast social phenomenon. This research, however, has not been without its critics. In particular, some scholars argue that the concept of religion is problematic because it creates a dichotomy between the secular and sacred elements of human existence that may not exist in actual human experience. Other critics argue that this dichotomy is necessary for the purpose of studying religion. For further discussion of these issues, see the articles below.