Almost any group of human beings has some sort of religion, and many cultures have more than one. Over the past forty years or so there has been a “reflexive turn” in studies of religion as scholars pulled back and examined the constructed nature of this abstract concept that serves as the lens through which all human groups sort their cultural types.
Substantive definitions of religion often rely on beliefs, feelings, and experiences or on the presence of religious institutions. Several different disciplines may focus on these dimensions of religion, for example psychology views the experience of religiosity and its symbols and feelings; sociology or social anthropology examines these practices and their relationship to a society’s social structure; and literature looks at myths and other symbolic expressions of religion.
Other critics of substantive definitions of religion argue that they are too narrow or ethnocentric, ignoring the fact that there have been people throughout history and even in the present who do not hold beliefs in supernatural beings or explicit metaphysics. They suggest that to understand religion as a social genus it would be better to use a functional definition that focuses on the functions of a belief system.
Some scholars have also argued that focusing on the subjective states of religious belief and experience misses the point that all religions are founded on a foundation of human innate needs. They suggest that this perspective shifts attention from internal mental states to external institutional structures and that, for the most part, a religion’s core elements can be derived from these.