Religion is an incredibly complex phenomenon. It can bring people together, but it can also be a source of division and stress. It can also help us understand our place in the world, and it can teach us how to deal with problems that come up in life.
Many different definitions of religion have been proposed. Some are functional, such as Cooley’s microfunction: “a need of human nature centering in a craving to make life seem rational and good” (1909:372). Other definitions are substantive, such as those offered by the Verstehen school of social science, which describe religions in terms of their utopian spaces.
In modern times, it is common to take the word “religion” as a taxon for sets of social practices that share certain characteristics: it consists of beliefs and practices that have a particular type of content and a way of acting. A number of social scientists, however, have questioned the usefulness of this approach to studying religion.
Several attempts have been made to find some distinctive ingredient that is shared by all religions, such as the numinous experience, the distinction between sacred and profane, or the belief in one or more gods. But these attempts have been criticized either because the rich variety of religions makes it easy to point to counterexamples, or because the ingredient cited is insufficiently powerful or broad. A more promising approach is the use of polythetic criteria, as in the work of J. Z. Smith (1982: ch. 1).