Religion is a complex subject that has been studied by many disciplines. Some of these disciplines include anthropology, sociology, psychology, philology, literature, and history. However, no consensus has been developed about what is the best way to approach the study of religion.
Some scholars have argued that a common definition of religion is difficult to find. Attempts to define it in terms of particular characteristics have been met with objections, such as the difficulty of identifying a distinctive ingredient among all religions and the diversity of religions that are practiced throughout human history.
Other philosophers have suggested that a “monothetic-set” definition of religion, in which all its practices are treated as a single unit, might be more useful. These approaches have a number of advantages, including the ability to describe religion as a social genus and to distinguish it from other phenomena with which it shares some features.
Moreover, these types of definitions can be used to distinguish religion from other forms of valuing, such as magic and art. This can be important for both the study of religion and social science in general, because it allows scholars to examine the differences between different religious traditions without losing sight of their similarities.
A functional definition of religion turns on a specific social function, such as creating solidarity or providing orientation. It is a functionalist interpretation, which is often based on a theory of society, as in Durkheim’s (1920) notion that religion represents the social power that makes it possible for people to form communities.
Another functionalist perspective is that of Paul Tillich ( 1957 ), who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values. This concern may involve belief in unusual realities, but it can also be a concern about the nature of the world or about spiritual experience.
While these functionalist perspectives are sometimes criticized as being ethnocentric and failing to consider other religious traditions, they provide the basis for a more comprehensive understanding of what religion is all about. These theories, in turn, can help social scientists better understand how different groups of people in a society might interpret and interact with the world.
In addition to these functionalist views, there is a group of scholars who argue that religion is a social genus, but that it is not a universal phenomenon. This approach has been influenced by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “family resemblance.”
The resemblance concept implies that there is not one thing that all social genuses have in common, but that they share a variety of overlapping or crisscrossing features. For example, a person’s religious beliefs might reflect their own personal experience or a set of principles that they have been taught to believe in by others.
These concepts can be applied to any social genus, but they are most effective in examining religion as a social genus. This is the main reason why these theories have a strong influence on the way scholars have defined and studied religion.