Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that creates powerful moods and motivations in its adherents, binds them to one another, and guides their conduct. For some, like William James, it “flies the highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, and bravery to which the wings of human nature can aspire.”
The term religion derives from religio, which roughly means “to bind,” and the Latin word for faith, or piety, is cultus. Religious beliefs and practices are codified into prayer, scriptures, law, and ritual and are based on the idea that there is a supernatural realm. In addition to defining how people should behave with respect to themselves, fellow believers, outsiders, and the supernatural world, these traditions also prescribe moral codes for proper relationships with others.
For much of the twentieth century, scholars have used a variety of approaches to define religion. The first were those who sought to determine whether a form of life believed in unusual realities. These were called substantive definitions. Then came Emile Durkheim’s functional definition, which placed emphasis on the role a religious system played in binding individuals into a moral community. Finally, Yinger and Geertz’s microfunctional approach emphasized the ability of a religious tradition to generate utopian spaces that the major institutions of society neglect.
Many of these definitions were monothetic, meaning they held that any group that fit the definition was a religion. But a group may share beliefs and behaviors without believing in unusual realities. Moreover, a social genus can exist in more than one culture, and therefore the concept of religion can be defined substantively or functionally without being pan-human.