Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that center on questions about the meaning of life and may involve the worship of a supreme being. It ideally serves several functions, including giving purpose to life and reinforcing social unity and stability. It also provides guidance and direction, promotes moral reflection, and encourages people to engage in ethical action.
Religious beliefs and practices are diverse from society to society. They differ in terms of a variety of supernatural forces, spirits, and gods; in the number and types of practitioners; in the way that religious ritual is performed; and in the ways that people interact with these forces. Nevertheless, they all share some of the same basic characteristics: they are based on a belief in a superior being; they are organized by religious institutions or disciplinary practices; and they may be influenced by social and political values.
A common approach to the study of religion is to focus on a formal definition, one that includes both substantive and functional elements. In this approach, the goal is to find an adequate notion of religion that is sufficient in a given context and that can be used as a criterion for evaluating religions.
This criterion, however, can quickly become inadequate, as religion becomes more diverse and ambiguous over time. This is why scholars often argue that to define religion as something that appears in all cultures is arbitrary, that the concept of religion is only useful when it is applied to particular historical contexts.
Moreover, such an approach to defining religion can lead to the reiteration of false assumptions about the reality of this phenomenon. As Smith pointed out, “the term religion is itself a construct that has been constructed by a culture to describe the social reality it has chosen to represent” (2001: 175). Similarly, Asad argues that the concept of religion has been built on presuppositions that have distorted our view of historical reality.
For Asad, the question is not whether religion exists qua social reality but rather what it entails for the social existence of human beings. The answer, he argues, is that a coherent existential complex can be named even when it lacks any corresponding social presence. This is a critical conclusion for a discipline that takes its conceptual categories as inescapable aspects of human life.
In the modern period, a few sociologists, such as Durkheim, began to treat religion as a function of sociality. These scholars argued that religion acted as a means for members of a group to identify with the entire group and to be able to live organized lives with others in that group.
This concept of religion, then, served as the foundation for much of the comparative study of religions and, more importantly, was a central tool in studying the continuity and change within religions over time. It also gave rise to a tradition of comparisons between “true” and “other” religions.
A critical challenge for comparative studies of religion is the need to continually re-define the conceptual categories that constitute religion in order to accommodate new and varied historical materials. This has led to a growing interest in the role of a critical theory of religion that takes the social reality of human beings as its basis.