Religion is a broad topic that encompasses many beliefs and practices. Its definition is a subject of controversy and disagreement. Some scholars argue that it is impossible to define in any meaningful way because of the vast range of phenomena that people consider to be religion. Others believe that a tight definition is necessary to distinguish religion from magic, witchcraft, and cults and sects.
It is important for anthropologists to understand the diverse ways that people define religion in order to grasp the nature of this phenomenon and its impact on culture. In particular, understanding the differences between monothetic and polythetic approaches is key to addressing the philosophical questions that arise in the study of religion.
A common definition of religion is that it refers to human beings’ relationship with what they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In theistic traditions, this includes beliefs in gods or spirits; in more humanistic and naturalistic traditions, it may refer to one’s relationships with or attitudes toward the broader human community or the natural world.
Some scholars take a functional approach to religion and define it as the set of beliefs and practices that serve a particular social function, such as creating solidarity or providing orientation in life. Other scholars take a more structural approach to religion and define it as the cultural organization of beliefs, values, practices, and texts. Still other scholars take a realist view of religion and define it as a coherent existential complex.