Religions are ancient and universal, yet their meaning and functions vary widely across cultures. Anthropologists and philosophers have sought to clarify what distinguishes religion, and the anthropological study of religion has produced some important contributions to our understanding of human nature, society, and culture.
But a close examination of the field also makes it clear that there are multiple ways to define what religion is. Some definitions are substantive, others functional. Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, defines religion as “belief in spiritual beings”, and, because of his emphasis on the importance of believing in these beings, he would exclude a great many peoples from being considered to have a religion. A more functional approach, such as that of Paul Tillich, defines religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values (whether those concerns involve belief in unusual realities).
It may be that these two types of definition are not incompatible. However, some scholars, perhaps most notably Ninian Smart, have criticized the functionalist approach as not sufficiently acknowledging the role of social ties in what constitutes a religion. He has suggested adding a fourth feature, community, to the traditional model. His view reflects the fact that religions are early and long-lasting protective systems tied to the basic potentialities of human nature and of their environments.
A variety of definitions have been used in the history of religion studies, and a great deal of controversy surrounds them. The debate has usually focused on whether one should define religion as a set of mental states or as an institutional set of practices.
Some have argued that to reduce religion to a set of mental states reflects a Protestant bias and that the proper way to understand religion is as an institutional complex. This is a valid point, but it does not completely resolve the issue because the underlying beliefs do make a difference.
In particular, these beliefs imply the existence of a transcendent reality or order which gives the world meaning and purpose. This is the essence of a religious perspective, and it provides a powerful basis for defending religion against scientific and philosophical criticisms. It also explains why people who have a religion can remain committed to it even in the face of discrediting evidence and changing attitudes. Such commitments are often based on a sense of loyalty to family, friends, and the social fabric in general. For this reason, religiosity may play a very positive role in human societies. It can help us to cope with the many limitations and frustrations that confront human life. In doing so, it can give our lives a greater significance and meaning. In this respect, religions make life as a project a little easier, and that is something we can all appreciate.