What Is Religion?

Religion is a term that is used to describe a huge variety of social practices. The semantic range of the concept has expanded and shifted over time, making it difficult to sort out what the thing really is that people mean when they talk about religion. Some academics take a functional approach, such as Durkheim’s definition of religion as the dominant concern that serves to organize a group’s values. Others use a polythetic approach, like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance, and argue that the different things that are called religion have no one essential property but only various crisscrossing features that make them similar to each other.

Anthropologists, who study human societies and their origins, often support a theory that religion evolved as a response to a cultural or a biological need. Some scholars believe that humans created spirituality because of a desire for security and meaning in life, and they developed religious beliefs in order to fill these needs. Other scholars argue that religion developed in response to the fact that early human beings had to face death and a lack of resources, and they needed a way to understand the world and their place in it.

The debate over how to define the phenomenon of religion has become so intense that some academics have stopped using the term altogether. Instead, they have developed a set of social taxonomies that include concepts such as “belief systems” and “practices”. Other scholars have continued to use the term but have argued that it is unhelpful to rely on substantive definitions, which imply that there is a single defining property that every example of the phenomenon should share.

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