Religion is a global phenomenon that invokes a wide spectrum of human emotions, from love and compassion to hatred and intolerance. Its many practices, goals and social functions can be beneficial for society, but they also have a dark side that can be exploited to promote hatred and violence. The world’s religions contain both mankind’s highest moral and spiritual teachings as well as grim remnants of intolerance, patriarchy and war.
It is common today to take the concept of “religion” as a taxon, a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism). However, even in cultures where such ideas as an afterlife or disembodied spirits have never been widespread, it would be possible for some people to describe themselves as religious.
A polythetic approach to the term involves examining what features all religious beliefs, behaviors and institutions share. It is a kind of family-resemblance concept, whereby a practice, community or institution can be considered religious if it shares enough of these features to qualify it for the classification.
For example, some scholars have argued that all religions feature a belief in a transcendent god, the existence of spirit entities, a holy text and socially sanctioned ritualized behavior. Such an approach treats the concept of religion as a set of properties rather than as an abstract entity, which makes it useful for sorting cultural types. But this approach raises some philosophical questions. It also reveals that, unlike most other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, the notion of religion cannot be understood in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, as the idea of a class can be analyzed using social-taxonomic methods.