Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings, and actions that gives its members an object of devotion, someone or something sacred to believe in, and a code of behavior by which to judge their own conduct and the conduct of others. It often involves beliefs about the supernatural and spiritual, about forces or powers that humans cannot control. It also has a strong influence on human morality and the arts. In its broadest sense, religion includes all the virtues derived from devotion to the Divine. It exists in its highest perfection in heaven, where it is a bond of filial affection for the Deity and where all creatures live in perfect conformity to His holy will. Religion also exists in a lesser degree on earth, where it is often combined with some element of love for the Deity and of hope for eternal life.
Some scholars, particularly those who follow the Verstehen school of social science, have argued for a definition of religion that drops the notion of belief in an unusual reality and defines it instead in terms of a distinct role that a religious act can play in the life of an individual or a community. This is known as a functional definition of religion and it contrasts with substantive definitions that define religion in terms of belief in some particular kind of reality.
Most of the definitions of religion that have been offered in the past have been substantive, but a few functional ones have appeared in the last several decades. For example, Emile Durkheim argued that religion is the organized system of social practices that bind a group of people into a moral community (as if this fact were not obvious from the definition of the word). Another approach to defining religion takes its cue from the way scientists describe early human attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment. Anthropologists have found that these efforts fell into two different categories: manipulation, as in magic, and supplication, as in religion. Magic tries to make the environment directly subject to human will through rituals, such as drawing pictures of animals on cave walls in hopes of assuring success in hunting. Religion, on the other hand, tries to influence the environment by appealing to higher powers, gods and goddesses.
Most stipulative definitions of religion have been flawed, since they operate with the classical view that a category-concept will have a single, identifying property that all instances in the category will share. This approach can result in a type-relationship that is not based on what the concept actually does, as with “ice-skating while singing.” (For an explanation of this problem, see the article on Real and Stipulative Definitions.) A functional approach avoids this problem by adopting a prototype structure for its definition of religion.