How to Define Religion


Religion has long occupied a central place in the lives of people. It gives life meaning and purpose, creates a sense of belonging, serves as a moral code and source of values, provides paths to social stability and conflict resolution, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate individuals to work for social change. Yet, it is not an easy thing to define. It is a social phenomenon that varies across cultures and eras. Some definitions rely on beliefs in supernatural or spiritual beings and dimensions, while others, like those of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, focus on specific forms of social interaction and ritual.

In the past, many scholars defined religion as a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. This type of definition, however, can easily become a narrowly focused one that misses the richness and diversity of religion. Over the last few decades, a shift has occurred. Scholars have started to pull the lens back, so to speak, on the concept of religion and the assumptions baked into it, examining how it has come to mean so much different things to so many people across time and culture.

Whether or not they include gods and spirits, supernatural beings or dimensions, or other such elements, these more recent versions of the religion concept are what I call functional definitions. They focus on the way religion functions to unify people into a moral community, regardless of whether or not it involves any particular belief in unusual realities.

For example, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that the most basic function of religion is to cement and enforce a set of behavioral norms around mating. This, they say, is why most religions have rules about who can marry and why they encourage procreation. They also point out that, in addition to establishing and enforcing a set of norms around marriage, many religions serve other important social functions such as providing a sense of belonging, serving as a moral compass and source of values, offering pathways to societal stability, and motivating people to work for social change.

These kinds of functional definitions of religion are helpful because they help us avoid a tendency to pit religion against other social institutions and to reduce them to their most extreme manifestations. It is far more important to recognize the positive role that religions play in society and in the lives of individual persons. In doing so, we will be able to approach the issue of religion with a greater degree of objectivity. This will enable us to develop better arguments and make more informed choices about how to protect, preserve, and advance this vital institution of humankind. I would like to close this essay by saying that the goal of my research is to contribute to this process. It is an ongoing endeavor that I hope will continue well into the future. It is, after all, in our own best interests to do so.

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