Religion is a vast and amorphous category, with no single definition that is accepted by all. A variety of approaches to the study of religion are found in sociology, anthropology and philosophy, among other disciplines. In general, they are characterized by their attempts to find a defining characteristic or set of characteristics that distinguishes religion from other forms of human social formation.
The concept of religion is derived from the Latin religio, which means “scrupulousness,” “conscientiousness” or “devotedness.” Religion is one of many ways humans evaluate their world and themselves, and it differs from other methods of evaluation in its intensity and comprehensiveness. Moreover, it is not just a form of value; it also provides its adherents with an identity that is sacred or holy.
Many early 19th century theories based on Western metaphysical schemes in competition with Christian and other theologies offered alternative explanations for religious phenomena. Some of these theories are considered the starting point of modern study of religion, such as those of Edward Burnett Tylor, Herbert Spencer and Max Müller. Others are criticized as having little scientific validity, such as those of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.
Theories of the nature and origin of religion are still debated today. Some scholars believe that religion was a primitive, natural phenomenon, whereas others think that it is a human construct with its roots in evolution, culture and history. Still other scholars have analyzed the role of religion in the development of society and its function as a source of morality.
One of the most controversial issues in the study of religion is whether or not a definition of religion should be functional or substantive. A functional definition focuses on the effects of religion on society, while a substantive definition identifies beliefs and practices that are important to its adherents.
Those who argue for a functional definition of religion often stress the positive effects that it has on societies and the individuals who practice it. This approach is based on the premise that religion is a positive force in the world, bringing harmony and peace to its followers. Critics of this approach, however, argue that it overlooks the role that religion can play in a negative way, such as fanaticism or extremism.
Those who favor a substantive definition of religion tend to emphasize the importance of beliefs and practices that affect the individual’s personal life, such as prayer, ethics and morality. They assert that religion is different from secular ideologies because its followers are committed to a spiritual and supernatural hierarchy. These beliefs and practices, they argue, are essential to a person’s identity. They further argue that functional definitions of religion can be misleading because they rely on preconceived notions about what defines a religion. A substantive approach, on the other hand, offers a more realistic view of religion in that it recognizes that not all individuals have identical experiences. The difference between these two approaches is subtle but significant.