Religion is a concept of such immense scope that it is impossible to settle on a single definition. Its meaning has shifted over time and from context to context. The word can refer to scrupulous devotion, a set of beliefs or practices, a group that shares a particular viewpoint on the universe or life in general, a particular type of social organization, and more. The term has also come to be seen as a phenomenon of human society that is culturally constructed and therefore a product of social forces. This view of the term has become popular in many academic fields, including anthropology, history, sociology, and religious studies.
A defining characteristic of religion is that it creates a powerful, pervasive, long-lasting mood or motivation in people by formulating conceptions of the universe and clothing them with an aura of factuality. This approach has been particularly popular in anthropology. However, it is a problematic approach for several reasons. The main concern is that it reduces the idea of religion to a set of features associated with Western religion. This can then be used to construct theories that explain those specific features, but it doesn’t really address the question of what is religion in a more global sense.
The formal strategy is to attempt to define religion in a way that is consistent with known cases of the phenomena. This is what Geertz did when he defined religion as “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with an aura of factuality.”
Another common approach is the functional definition of religion. This is the approach taken by Emile Durkheim, who described religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices that binds individuals into one moral community.” It is also the approach taken by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concern provides orientation in life.
This sort of functional approach to the concept of religion is very useful, especially for comparing and studying different cultures and societies. It allows scholars to focus on what is unique about a culture or society and not get distracted by the many differences that might be found between the two.
A problem with the functional definition is that it tends to resist a certain image of humans as passive, socially engineered creatures. A substantive definition, on the other hand, can help challenge that. A substantive definition might be characterized as a “method of valuing that is both intense and comprehensive.” This type of definition makes it easier to compare and contrast religions and to find ways of understanding how the concept of religion functions. It is important to note, though, that the distinction between a formal and substantive definition is only a philosophical difference and does not affect how the concept of religion is actually applied. The definition of religion that is most important to a culture or society will be the one that is applied to it in practice.