The Different Definitions of Religion


There are many different definitions of religion. Some of them focus on what kinds of practices are included in the category, whereas others are concerned with the kind of social categories that religion is a part of. Still others have a more general view of the world that involves the idea that there are forces and powers that exist outside of human control and influence, and that these forces can affect humans and their surroundings in various ways.

Some of the earliest forms of religion involved believing in special deities, either gods or spirit creatures. These included the gods of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, as well as the spirits of ancestors in tribal cultures. Later, more complex belief systems developed, with myths and stories of creation and guardian and protective gods. These were often accompanied by certain rituals and codes of behavior, or a set of rules for personal moral conduct.

Anthropologists who support a cultural origin for religion argue that religion has evolved over time as a set of cultural practices, or “religious forms,” that are passed down from generation to generation. They assert that these religious forms answer emotional and psychological needs in humans, such as the need to find meaning and direction in life. They also point out that the emergence of religion as a social taxon did not wait for humans to develop language, and therefore that it is a universal feature of human culture.

Other critics have claimed that there is no such thing as religion, or that the concept of religion has been artificially expanded by modern Western society, in order to justify its own expansion and oppressive policies. These critics have called for a return to more basic concepts that would be closer to what people actually do and think.

Some scholars of religion have proposed stipulative definitions of the term, which define it in terms of a functional criterion, such as the need for community solidarity or for guidance in living. This type of definition differs from a real or lexical definition, which determines whether something is or is not religion by showing how it relates to the world around us. However, these stipulative definitions do not necessarily have to be wrong. They may be less adequate or appropriate for a particular purpose, such as when analyzing forms of life across cultures.