The Definition of Religion

Religion aims at giving meaning and purpose to human life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. Its underlying assumptions are generally considered to be moral, and it is important for religious believers that their beliefs are consistent with the teachings of their faith.

Religion is an ancient phenomenon, and it has appeared in every culture that has ever existed. It has a range of manifestations and practices, from stories about gods and spirits to rituals for the dead, music and art, feasts and holidays, and many other aspects of human culture. The concept of religion cuts across disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and religious studies. It is therefore difficult to come up with a definition that is universally acceptable. However, there are some approaches that seem more promising than others.

For example, Emile Durkheim suggested that a definition of religion should be based on the existence of a grouping of values in which the most prominent value is solidarity. This approach, which he called the functionalist definition of religion, is a major point of departure for modern sociology. Similarly, Paul Tillich suggests that the essence of religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize one’s values (irrespective of whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities).

The prevailing definition of religion tends to be either substantive or functional, rather than both. A functional definition of religion emphasizes the positive benefits that the practice brings to society and the individual; a substantive definition, on the other hand, focuses on the cultural and emotional significance of the practices for individuals.

Substantive definitions are sometimes thought to resist a certain ideological image of humans as passive participants in a religion’s message; functionally defined, on the other hand, a person’s active role in maintaining a religion is essential to the definition.

It is possible to define religion both substantively and functionally, although it is not easy to do so. Most attempts at definitions have been formal and rely on secondary traits that are shared by most instances of the practice. Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life exemplifies this type of formal approach.

Other efforts, like those of Robert Wuthrich and David Slocum, rely on more emic, or descriptive, methods. These employ ethnographic research to identify and describe religious phenomena, often with the goal of making comparisons among cultures. This approach is more difficult to apply in the case of the newer religions, since many of them have not yet been thoroughly analyzed in comparative contexts. In addition, it is difficult to generalize from the experiences of indigenous cultures to those of other regions. This is especially true in the case of the religions of Asia. In this case, comparative analysis of a number of regional religious traditions may be necessary before a definitive picture can be drawn.