The study of Religion involves a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and most recently cognitive science. The debate about the concept of Religion cuts across all these fields and many others. Nevertheless, the most important developments have been in the 19th century, when scientific history, archaeology, anthropology, and the rise of social sciences made it possible to develop systematic knowledge about diverse cultures throughout the world.
Then, as modern societies became more complex, many scholars began to look for a more theoretical explanation of religion. This led to a number of different attempts to define religion. A common approach is to identify a set of features that all religions have in common. This approach is often called a substantive definition. The problem is that this approach can be narrow-minded, since it can exclude faith traditions like Buddhism and Jainism that do not believe in a supernatural deity.
Another approach is to define religion in terms of a specific function it serves in society. The functionalists Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich are examples. Durkheim emphasized that religion provides a means of regulating behavior and establishing moral codes. Tillich defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values and helps him or her feel centered and guided (whether or not the concern involves belief in unusual realities).
Still other approaches are formal. They attempt to find a structural pattern that is common among all cases. This approach is sometimes called a formalistic strategy. It is often used by historians, as in the case of Zeldin’s (1969) notion of a narrative structure of related discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a superempirical, cosmic-level order. Some sociologists have also tried to use this method of defining religion. They have been particularly interested in the idea of social functions that are attributed to religion (e.g., Comte).
There are many problems with these substantive and functional approaches to the definition of Religion. First, it is difficult to determine what is distinctive about religion, since it may appear in many different forms. Second, some scholars have criticized such substantive definitions for being ethnocentric. They have argued that they tend to focus on beliefs, personal experiences, and the dichotomy between natural and supernatural and fail to consider religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism that stress immanence or oneness.
The most important argument against substantive and functional definitions is that they ignore the role that religion plays in the life of people and societies. It can be a source of social cohesion and unity as well as the cause of violence, hatred, persecution, war, and genocide. History teaches us that the practice of Religion can promote or discourage human rights, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. It can foster or destroy family and national relationships. It can help or hinder health and learning, and it can produce or aggravate prejudices, anxieties, and mental illnesses.