What Is Religion?

Religion is a term often used to describe an organized system of beliefs and practices that provides its members with something sacred in which to believe, a spiritual concept upon which to base their lives, a code of ethical behavior to live by, and some sort of social structure to organize those values. It usually involves a sacred community and place of worship, certain sacred actions or rituals, a priesthood to govern the community, and a leader who gains godlike status. In addition, many religions use myth and symbol to make sense of the world and life, have an idea of salvation, or a divine plan for the future.

While a lot of people have a substantive definition of religion, one that determines membership in this category in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality, most scholars and philosophers who study religion take a functional approach to the concept, which judges whether a thing is a religion by what role it plays in a community. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever practices unite a group of people into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve beliefs in unusual realities.

Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, formulated a different definition of religion that turns on the way a group sets powerful and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and then clothing them with an aura of factuality. This second type of functional definition is called an open polythetic or taxon approach, and Geertz argued that it is better for purposes of clarity to work with such a taxon than with a closed monothetic definition.

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