Religion is a difficult concept to define. Historically, scholars have used the term to refer to various socially organized sets of beliefs and practices that claim to be divine. They often emphasize that the defining characteristics of religion are not logical or rational, but rather socially and culturally constructed. These constructs are based on the values and ideas that people have about their world and their place in it. They also include the ideas about how humans should behave and their approach to certain writings, places, and persons.
Some of the most influential views about what counts as a religion have been developed by scholars who use a social constructionist methodology. They view the process by which something is recognized as a religion to be a social phenomenon that must be studied. This is a different approach than the classical view that a social phenomenon can be accurately described by a single, unchanging defining property.
In the twentieth century, scholars have increasingly shifted their attention to how a concept is developed. This has led to the emergence of a set of definitions that reject “thing-hood” and instead determine membership in a category in terms of the functional role that an object or form of life plays in people’s lives. These are sometimes called “functional” definitions because they identify a defining role that a religion can play and thereby determine the class to which it belongs.
While it may seem avant garde today to define religion in this way, one can easily find precedents for this type of analysis. For example, Christian theologians have traditionally analyzed their way of life as simultaneously a system of beliefs and a system of practices. They referred to this analytical structure as the “Fideismi complex” or “fides and fidelitas.”
These functional definitions are often based on the assumption that social structures are the source of religious practices. In this view, religion is a way of organizing a society so that it is more likely to be prosperous and successful. Those who adopt this view of religion argue that it is more appropriate to analyze how religious institutions develop than to try to figure out whether or not they are genuinely “religious.”
A third approach to the definition of religion is a polythetic one. This type of definition seeks to recognize as many properties of a religion as possible and then to compare forms of life on the basis of these properties. While polythetic approaches may be more open to the discovery of unexpected patterns, they can sometimes fail to distinguish between phenomena that share the same defining property. For this reason, some scholars have opted for a closed polythetic approach that limits the number of properties that are considered.