Religion is a complicated concept to define, as it can mean different things to different people. Some scholars use the term to refer to the unified set of beliefs and practices that unite a particular group of people into a moral community (for example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). Others define religion in terms of a system of faith or belief. Still others use the term to refer to a system of ethics or morality. Religion can also be defined in terms of the spiritual and the supernatural.
One of the problems with these different definitions is that they each imply a specific view of reality. Substantive definitions of religion define it as the presence of a distinctive kind of reality, and they often require that this unique view be shared by all members of the group. These definitions are called “substantive” because they determine membership in a religious community by the presence of a specific set of beliefs and practices.
A more problematic version of this view is that religion is a sort of social construct, an idea created by humans. This idea has the effect of binding a group together and provides a sense of meaning in life. This idea is created by human needs, desires, and fantasies that need to be fulfilled. In other words, religion is a way for a group of people to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
These ideas have been criticized by other scholars who argue that substantive and functional definitions of religion ignore the fact that humans are social actors who are active in their daily lives and who make decisions about what to believe. This argument is known as the Verstehen approach to definition, and it is an important part of ethnographic and participant observation methodology.
The earliest use of the term “religion” was as an adjective meaning “scrupulousness” or “devotedness”. It was later used in the Latin sense of “nobis religio”, which approximates “our way of worship”. In Western antiquity, this probably meant that a person belonged to a certain god if he or she observed rituals and took vows to do or not do things on behalf of the god.
A more modern definition of religion emerged with the works of Emile Durkheim and Charles Cooley. Durkheim’s definition is that a religion is whatever set of practices unite a number of people into a moral community, and this community can be organized around a set of beliefs. Cooley’s definition is that a religion is a microfunction that fulfills a need of human nature.
Some scholars, such as sociologist Margaret Archer, have rejected stipulative definitions of religion, saying that they do not allow for critique and that they force the scholar to accept any definition of religion offered. She argues that a proper sociological analysis of religion requires a focus on the way in which the concept is constructed and contested.