What Is Religion?


Despite the wide range of practices now said to fit the term religion, it has been hard to nail down what defines this social taxon. Until recently, most of the attempts to do so used what is called a “monothetic” approach, holding that any instance accurately described by a particular definition must share some defining property or properties. Today, however, a number of scholars are using “polythetic” approaches that avoid the claim that an evolving concept has any kind of essential nature.

The classic approach, as illustrated in the definitions offered above, sees the essence of religion as a set of beliefs and practices related to a supernatural or transcendent reality. This is sometimes referred to as a “substantive” definition, though it also has been accused of being too broad and too narrow. Too broad because it treats belief in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders as sufficient for being religious; too narrow because it excludes faith traditions that do not emphasize an empirical-superempirical dichotomy, such as some forms of Buddhism and Jainism (see Philosophy of Religion).

While this debate over the characterization of religion is interesting, it is perhaps more instructive to consider what is known about the effects of religion on human life. For example, scientific studies suggest that regular involvement in a religion is associated with improved health and greater well-being. This kind of benefit is certainly one reason why so many Americans have turned to their religions in recent years, especially as political leaders from across the spectrum have articulated grave concerns about the state of American society and the contribution that family life and religious practice can make to preserving it.