The Definition of Religion


Religion is a category of human phenomena that encompasses all beliefs, practices, and experiences that are regarded as holy or sacred by its adherents. It is an enormously broad and diverse category. Consequently, there is no one definition of religion. There is a great deal of ongoing debate about the nature and characteristics of this concept, drawing on many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and most recently cognitive science.

Some define religion in terms of the mental states that characterize it, such as beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders. Other scholars of religion are critical of this approach, arguing that it reflects a Protestant bias and that there is much about religion that cannot be described in terms of private subjective states. They argue that the notion of religion can be understood in terms of social structures, disciplinary practices, or even institutions. They also point to the fact that there is much behavior associated with religion that cannot be characterized in this way, such as rituals and observances.

The most influential current approach is that of Talal Asad, who uses Michel Foucault’s genealogical methodology to examine the various ways in which the concept of religion has been constructed in anthropology. This is a critique of both the functionalist and substantive approaches to the study of religion, and it emphasizes the importance of understanding how a concept like religion has been used and abused throughout its history.

Most contemporary definitions of religion are functionalist in nature, focusing on the effects that religion has in people’s lives and society at large. Some of these definitions are influenced by the work of Emile Durkheim, who believed that religion was a cultural system that provides a framework for human life. Other functionalists draw on the works of Wilhelm Reich and Abraham Maslow to develop a set of criteria for identifying religion. These include belief in a supreme being, morality, and a sense of community.

Other definitions are substantive in nature, focusing on the defining features that distinguish religion from other social categories such as art, politics, or sport. Some of these definitions draw on the work of William James, who argued that religion involves an individual’s “apprehension of some primal reality which transcends all sensual experience and stands above any rational contemplation” (1902:42).

These substantive definitions are criticized for being ethnocentric, in that they focus on belief, personal experience, and a dichotomy between the natural and supernatural. They are also criticized for neglecting faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some forms of Buddhism and Jainism. The development of these new approaches to the study of religion has been accompanied by increasing skepticism about whether it is possible to give a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. For example, some social scientists are skeptical that it is possible to use cognitive science to explain the origin of religion or how it functions. In these cases, it may be necessary to turn to other methods of analyzing culture, such as linguistic analysis, ethnography, and historical case study.