More than 80 percent of the world’s population subscribes to some form of religion. Yet despite the huge number of people that claim religious beliefs, there is no consensus about what exactly is or isn’t religion. Different religions offer fundamentally different approaches to God, scripture, truth, behavior, morality and culture. The definition of religion is thus contested and the word can be used to describe phenomena that are not really religions. It can also be used to refer to a wide range of activities, many of which are considered spiritual and/or supernatural, such as magic, art and science. This article considers four implicit models of religion that have emerged in social scientific study and in the work of Hugh McLeod (religion as belief, identity, value-commitment and power). It argues that these models are flawed because they fail to distinguish between real and not-real religions.
The simplest model is the one that sees religion as consisting of beliefs and practices that are shared by a group of people. It excludes activities and communities that do not involve a belief in an unseen god or cosmological order, since it is not a religion to believe in something without an explanation for why this should be true.
The second model is the one embraced by anthropologists, who have long linked religion with the evolution of societies. It focuses on the role that religious beliefs and practices play in human life, linking them to the development of political systems, economic structures and social institutions. It also notes that religion is a complex phenomenon that serves several purposes in society, including promoting well-being, enhancing societal stability and control, strengthening morality and providing spiritual comfort.