Religion is, in some senses, an all-embracing term for a complex set of beliefs and practices that are shared by members of a particular culture. In this sense, it is often taken to include the major “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as some forms of life that have not been given any name, such as Confucianism, Daoism, or Animism. Some philosophers have also taken up religious matters, including A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and G.E. Moore (1905-1986).
Scholars have defined religion in a variety of ways, both substantively and functionally. Substantive definitions tend to view religion as a social genus that is present in all cultures, while functional definitions view it as the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion and provide orientation in life. However, when scholars define religion in this way, they risk treating all phenomena as identical, rather than as different manifestations of a common phenomenon. This is particularly the case when the defining characteristics of religion are seen as universal, such as belief in a transcendent reality (e.g., the God of Abrahamic religions), a concept of salvation, a shared language or symbols, a sacred place or object, and a common set of ethics and morals.
In recent years, many scholars have drawn back from these one-sided excesses of the past and sought to clarify what it is about a particular religion that makes it worthy of the label “religion.” They have also tried to avoid the pitfalls of both substantive and functional definitions by recognizing that the notion of religion is socially constructed in ways that reflect, but do not necessarily describe, a society’s beliefs and values. This approach has been known as verstehen, or “understanding from within.”
The aim of this article is to explore some of the ways in which this problem of definition has developed through history. Several broad areas of philosophical inquiry have influenced the development of religion, including metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, and the philosophy of science, among others. However, this article focuses on the development of philosophy of religion as it has evolved in the twentieth century and as it has emerged from the various departments of philosophy and religious studies that have been established. It also focuses on the work done in the analytic tradition of philosophy of religion, which has tended to emphasize the empirical and practical aspects of religious experience. Other traditions, such as continental philosophy, have emphasized the conceptual and abstract aspects of religion. Both approaches are criticized for their exaggerations and omissions. It is important to recognize, however, that a one-sided emphasis on the conceptual aspect of religion has led to serious problems in the past. This should serve as a warning to the historian of religions and those who use the term “religion” today.