Religion is one of those topics that is difficult to define. It is generally accepted that it involves some form of belief in supernatural beings, but beyond that the definition gets murkier. There are some who use a “substantive” definition that looks at beliefs in particular, while others take a more functional approach. These approaches have different implications for the study of Religion.
For example, many scholars think that the first step in understanding religion is to look at its function within a society. Emile Durkheim was the first sociologist to do this, and he believed that religion answers several deep human needs, including the desire for immortality and life after death, for a benevolent creator who watches over humanity, and for meaning and purpose in life.
These functions include social cohesion, promoting a consistent behavior pattern in society, and providing strength during life’s transitions and tragedies. Some believe that religion also serves as a motivation for positive social change.
A variety of approaches to the study of Religion have been proposed by social scientists and philosophers. Most of these are based on either the structural or symbolic interactionist perspective, with the latter usually taking into account the concept of ritual and the nature of moral judgment. The emergence of the Internet and digital communications have opened up a number of new ways to examine these issues, including the development of social networking websites and the phenomenon of religious blogs.
In the past, most of these studies have been focused on a specific religion or set of religions. However, in recent years there has been a move among some to pull back the curtain and look at the constructed nature of these religions as a whole. They argue that the fact that what is considered a religion often shifts according to one’s perspective is a sign of its artificiality.
The debate over what is and is not a religion has been especially intense in the context of the academic study of religion. There is a strong argument that the term is used as a taxon for sets of social practices rather than for individual mental states, because most religions have some kind of structure and ritual. They are therefore different from art or science, which are also considered to be social formations but are not structured or regulated in the same way as religions.
It has been argued that it is possible to define Religion using a lexical or dictionary definition, although this tends to be contested. It is more useful to consider it as a category concept, a taxon that contains a diverse range of different phenomena, and to see the study of Religion as a way of looking at a genus of social forms in their own right. It is worth noting that some of the most prominent examples of Religion are those that have no belief in a particular supernatural reality at all, such as tribal totems and ancestor worship, ancient forms of Hinduism, and certain beliefs that emerged along the Nile River and in Mesopotamia.