Defining Religion


Religion consists of people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It also involves their ultimate concerns, such as what happens after death. In many traditions, the religious dimension is expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods or spirits; in more humanistic or naturalistic forms, it is expressed in terms of one’s relationship to the broader human community and/or the natural world.

The definition of religion is a central topic in the social sciences and the humanities, with scholars arguing about how to define it, whether it is monothetic or polythetic, and what it means in relation to other aspects of life. The scholarly discussion of these issues is not just in service of developing a definition but also for the purposes of comparing and contrasting different versions of the same term, to understand what the term means in the widest possible range of historical contexts.

Defining Religion

A variety of approaches to the concept of religion have been used in the study of religious phenomena throughout history, but the most common approach has been that of “substantive” or “functional” definition. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber each attempted to define religion in terms of a distinctive kind of reality.

While these definitions may have differed in the details, each was essentially the same: they viewed religion as a set of beliefs about unique realities that constituted people’s moral character and thus their social status.

Since the emergence of the modern social sciences, there have been numerous attempts to develop a more functional approach to religion, which drops the belief in unusual realities and instead views it as a set of practices that unite a group of people into a moral community. The functional approach is not only more palatable to a broad audience, but it also allows the social sciences to better explain how beliefs are formed and transmitted from one generation to another.

However, there are some problems with a functional approach to religion. First, the approach does not adequately account for the complex ways in which different kinds of religious practices can be differentiated. Secondly, the functional approach does not account for the ways in which certain beliefs are connected to specific social structures or disciplinary practices.

In the twentieth century, philosophers have begun to consider religion more seriously as a matter of philosophy and have made use of some of the categories that are found within it. These include the experiential and institutional dimensions, as well as the doctrinal dimension (see below).

The Experiential Dimension

The experience of the divine or otherworldy is a key component in many types of religion. This includes visions, dreams, contact with other beings, revelation of meaning or truth, and emotional connections.

It is this dimension of religious practice that provides evidence for historians and archaeologists, and it enriches the lives of contemporary adherents who are able to make sense of the world through their rituals and practices.

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