Religion is a collection of beliefs, practices, and a social organization that influences a person’s worldview, morality, behavior, culture, and approach to certain writings or persons. Often, religion also contains a code of conduct that defines right over wrong and good over evil, among other things.
Religious faiths have a long history of providing their followers with a sense of meaning and purpose. Studies suggest that this can have positive effects on mental wellbeing – and even health. They can help people develop healthy behaviors such as exercising, eating well, avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, and form strong social relationships.
These benefits are not necessarily tied to adherence to a particular religious belief, however. Research shows that the benefits of religion are more generally associated with having a set of values that are rooted in a spiritual context, and with having a clear understanding of what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For example, many believers feel that stealing or murder are wrong because they have been taught to choose goodness over evil, and that there will be punishment in the afterlife for those who break the rules.
Most attempts to define religion have been “monothetic,” operating with the classical assumption that a concept can be accurately described by a single property, and that any instance that shares this property will be accurately described by the same term. This is called the prototype theory of concepts, and it has long been a core idea in the study of language. For the past few decades, there has been a movement away from monothetic definitions of religion toward what is called a polythetic approach. Polythetic definitions use the notion of family resemblance, and are based on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s insights about the nature of concepts.
A polythetic approach allows scholars to examine the similarities and differences between religions in a more holistic way, rather than simply trying to find a single defining property that all instances of religion share. This is more in line with how people actually think about the concept of religion.
For example, some critics have claimed that the modern semantic expansion of the concept of religion goes hand in hand with European colonialism and that it is time to stop treating it as if it is something that exists independently of human culture. Other critics have taken the argument further and argued that religion is a socially constructed concept, which means that it can only be defined by humans and that it therefore lacks intrinsic reality. Others have pushed back against this claim, arguing that there is no such thing as religion outside of human experience. Nevertheless, most scholars continue to treat the concept of religion as though it has some kind of existence.