Religion is a topic in many fields of study, including anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, religious studies and, more recently, cognitive science. The definition of religion is debated across these disciplines, with scholars arguing for various approaches.
A central question is whether religion should be defined functionally or substantively. A functional approach tends to define religion as a social genus, claiming that all societies have religious beliefs and practices. This view claims that the function of religion is to provide a sense of spiritual orientation. By contrast, a substantive definition defines religion as the most intense and comprehensive form of human valuation. By taking this view, it is possible to differentiate religion from other phenomena, and scientific findings and philosophical criticisms do not disturb the adherents of religion.
The problem with functional definitions is that they are often too broad, claiming that any movement with a belief system and committed group of followers can be considered a religion. This can be problematic, as it obscures the role of religion in society and makes it hard to determine its growth or decline.
Some have suggested that it would be better to define religion by identifying specific features rather than trying to create a universal definition. This way, it is possible to target certain attributes of religion for empirical investigation and theoretical explanation. However, this approach can be problematic as it may lead to a type of selection bias whereby the features selected for analysis are those that are most prominent in Western society and thus easiest to identify.
Another problem with targeting particular features of religion for theoretical explanation is that it is not clear what exactly these features are. For example, if the focus is on belief in gods, it is not clear whether this feature of religion is something that can be explained by scientific theorizing or if such an endeavor is even productive.
One potential solution is to take a hybrid approach, defining religion as both a social genus and a particular type of phenomenon. This approach seeks to capture the essence of religion while allowing for the possibility that it could be modified and expanded as a result of scientific inquiry. However, this is a difficult approach to implement as it would necessitate an enormous body of work in order to identify and evaluate all the different phenomena that might be classified as religion.
Finally, some have argued that it is best to simply proceed with study without worrying about the issue of definition, and that the issue should be resolved later when theory development has progressed far enough. This is a reasonable position to take, especially in light of the fact that some theories may have unforeseen implications that might require the modification of existing definitions. In addition, new religions and revitalization movements frequently appear in societies that already have established religions, creating a situation where the question of how to classify them becomes all the more important.