How to Define Religion


Religion is a hugely complex phenomenon, and scholars from many different disciplines have contributed to the study of it: anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science. The term is so broad that it is not easy to define, and there are debates about how the concept should be classified and sorted (see Taxonomy of Religion). One common approach is to distinguish between substantive and functional definitions. Substantive definitions seek to identify what a religious belief or practice must contain, such as belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders. Functional definitions, by contrast, are based on the idea that certain kinds of activities can be classified as religion only if they serve some kind of important function in society or the individual’s life. This category includes practices such as prayer, sacrificial ritual, superstition, and puritanical morality.

Religions help people make sense of their lives and their place in the world, provide a framework for understanding other cultures, strengthen social order, promote moral behavior, provide psychological and physical well-being, and motivate people to work for positive changes in society. They can also, as William James wrote, ‘arouse the highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, bravery, and perseverance that human nature has to offer’.

While some scholars see the distinction between religious and secular beliefs as a largely artificial one, others recognize that it does exist. The emergence of new religious movements and the growing number of individuals who describe themselves as atheist or nonreligious suggests that some forms of religiosity are losing their hold in society. In the future, it may be necessary to abandon the effort to define religion as a social genus and concentrate instead on exploring how these diverse practices actually operate in real-world contexts.

A key issue in this regard is whether or not religion can be understood as a type of social organism, like literature or democracy. For example, although Clifford Geertz classified religion as a social genus and used a functional definition, some critics argue that his analysis overlooks the importance of religion as an axiological system, in which values and behaviors are grounded in a worldview rather than in any specific beliefs about unusual realities.

Other scholars have attempted to define religion by examining the way in which the experiences, ideas, and symbols of the various world religions interact with one another. They use a variety of methods to analyze the structure and dynamics of religious phenomena, including ethnographic research, surveys, interviews, and historical analysis. This research can help us understand how the characteristics of religions differ from one culture to the next, and how they evolve over time. It can also help us distinguish between different religious experiences, which often overlap but do not necessarily have to be identical. For example, religious rituals and ceremonies can be emotional or experiential in character, involving crying, screaming, trancelike states, or a feeling of oneness with those around us; they may also be doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, and material (art and architecture). The result is an approach known as symbolic interactionist theory.