How to Define Religion


Religion is one of humanity’s oldest and most distinctive social institutions, but the word itself evokes ideas that are complex and controversial. It is a term that is widely used but not always defined, and scholars have struggled to identify and distinguish what religion is. The debate has centered on two issues: whether there is a necessary and sufficient definition of the term and, in the case of functionalist theories, what are its basic properties.

Most people think of religion as a set of beliefs and practices that are linked to places like churches, temples, and mosques. However, anthropologists and other scholars who have studied religion are aware that there are many more dimensions to religion than what happens in these institutionalized sites. For example, a person who has no belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders is still religious in the sense that she or he feels a strong bond to the natural world and to the other human beings with whom she or he lives.

In an effort to capture the full range of religious phenomena, social scientists have sought to define religion in various ways. Most of these attempts fall into either substantive or functional categories, although there is some movement toward a verstehen approach to definition. Substantive definitions seek to identify essential features of religion, such as the sacred-profane or empirical-nonempirical distinction or some other defining property. Those who are more interested in the process of valuation, on the other hand, have defined religion as the most intense and comprehensive form of valuing that is experienced by human beings.

These different approaches to identifying religion have led to several different theories of how to define it. Functionalists, for example, have argued that religion is simply an institution that makes people feel good by linking them to a common source of value. Others, such as Durkheim and O’Dea, have defined it more explicitly in terms of certain beliefs and practices.

Using the term in this way makes it possible to analyze and compare different religions by considering what sets them apart from each other. However, this definition can also be limiting and reductive because it excludes any phenomena that do not fit into the category of religion as it is defined.

A number of scholars have criticized both substantive and functional definitions of religion, especially for their exclusionary effects. They argue that it is important to study the phenomenon in the context of a specific culture, and that to attempt to define religion outside that context is to misrepresent it. In the past, these critics have called for a verstehen approach to definition and have suggested that a definition of religion must be developed by participants themselves, not by social scientists (Horton 1960).

More recently, scholars have begun to use more reflexive definitions of religion. These have been inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” and have been designed to avoid the problems associated with substantive or functional taxonomies. While these definitions are a step in the right direction, they have not yet fully captured the complex and diverse nature of religion.