Religion is the world’s most widespread and varied form of belief. There are people in every culture who believe in an afterlife, disembodied spirits or cosmological orders. It’s so common, in fact, that anthropologists have struggled to find ways to make sense of it. One approach comes from Clifford Geertz, who argues that religion is “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality as to render them uniquely realistic.”
There are many different definitions of religion; it’s impossible to come up with one that pleases everybody. Some of these definitions are substantive while others are functional. Some are more inclusive, including beliefs in fate or UFOs, while other definitions are more exclusive by excluding any beliefs or practices that most people would not regard as religious.
In the past, some scholars have tried to solve this problem by separating religious beliefs from the social organization that holds them in place. This approach led to theories such as Emil Durkheim’s, which suggested that if religion disappeared, society wouldn’t dissolve.
Other scholars have tended to define religion more broadly, using concepts from anthropology, sociology, philosophy and psychology, as well as religious studies. These definitions are usually based on a three-sided model of truth, Scripture and behavior that incorporates what’s known as the sacred, the beautiful, and the good.