Religion is a complex, diverse, and historically evolving taxon, encompassing countless beliefs and practices. Despite the wide variation in these practices, they all share a number of common features. For example, most religions believe in a god or gods, have some sort of sacred texts, often include myths and stories, promote social cohesion and morality, and provide rituals. The vast majority of religions also teach that there is a afterlife and that life is a journey toward spiritual salvation.
For many scholars, the question of how to define religion has been central in their research. While some have embraced a traditional, monothetic definition of the concept (e.g., Durkheim’s), others have favored functional approaches that view the term as a natural grouping. These approaches typically rely on some theory that provides a natural kind of definition for the concept, such as Paul Tillich’s (1957) definition of religion as whatever serves to organize a person’s values or as the source of orientation in life.
The latter approach has become particularly popular in recent years, as it helps to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence. These approaches often take advantage of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” for concepts, whereby a variety of things may be identified as being part of the same class if they crisscross and partially overlap in ways akin to those that occur within families. This approach has also been linked to the burgeoning field of cognitive science.