A religion is a cultural grouping that shares certain beliefs and practices. In the past, religions have often been considered a single phenomenon, but today they are more commonly seen as social constructs that serve many different functions. These functions include providing meaning and purpose, establishing community, reinforcing values and morality, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change.
A number of scholars have analyzed the characteristics that define a religion, trying to come up with a definition that is both meaningful and broad enough to encompass all of these diverse religious phenomena. Some scholars have taken a functional approach, with Durkheim defining religion as the social function of creating solidarity, or Paul Tillich defining it as an axiological structure for organizing a person’s values. Other scholars have opted for a more substantive definition, with Edward Burnett Tylor arguing that religion is the belief in spiritual beings and the numinous experience of an Absolute Other that is terrifying and fascinating at the same time (mysterium tremendum et fascinans).
Scholars have also tried to develop a scientific theory of religion, attempting to explain the societal effects that it has. However, such a theory is difficult to achieve, given that it would need to be able to explain the various features of religion that are exhibited by different cultures and individuals. The problem with a scientific theory of religion is that if it defines religion as a set of beliefs or an experience, it can only explain those particular features – not the reasons why they are important in the first place.
Another approach to the study of religion is a polythetic one, with researchers looking for patterns in the different phenomena that are known to have religious characteristics. These kinds of patterns are similar to the way that scientists have been able to find similarities between very different biological specimens, based on their shared properties. Polythetic approaches to the concept of religion have been influenced by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “family resemblance.” Rather than identifying what is common to a whole class of phenomena, this theory seeks to identify crisscrossing and partially overlapping features that are akin to those in a family. This approach to defining religion is also supported by a recent survey that finds that more Americans than ever before have interfaith marriages, and that even fervent evangelicals are open to marrying a member of a different religion. This growing religious diversity has prompted renewed interest in the study of religion, and in how it affects our lives. As the United States begins a new chapter in its history, it is worth considering the role that religion will play in our future. A thoughtful national discussion of this issue is needed, and the Senate has an important role to play in this debate. Click the links below to learn more about the topic.