How Religion Is Defined


Religion has been defined by many different people in a wide variety of ways. Some have seen it as a system of belief, some have seen it as a set of behaviors, and others have focused on the emotions that are often associated with it. These definitions have been used by scholars in a wide range of disciplines to create theories about religion. Most of these approaches have been “monothetic” in that they operate on the classical view that every instance that accurately falls into a category will share one or more defining properties that make it so.

Some have pointed out that a definition of religion that simply refers to beliefs is insufficient because it fails to account for the fact that people often feel and act religiously even when they do not believe any unusual things. This problem is particularly evident in the case of non-religious individuals who have a strong sense of religious identity.

Others have tried to define religion in terms of the functional role it plays in a society. For example, Emil Durkheim proposed that religion functions to promote solidarity in a community. Paul Tillich took a similar approach when he defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (irrespective of whether that concern involves belief in any unusual realities).

Another way of thinking about the concept of religion is to look at how it has evolved historically. Anthropologists have been especially interested in the origins of religion, and this work has led to a number of important theories.

A key theory is that religion grew out of human curiosity about big questions like life and death, as well as fear of uncontrollable forces. It became a source of hope by transforming this curiosity and fear into a desire for immortality or life after death, the assurance that a loving creator would watch over humanity, and an ultimate purpose to life.

Early religions, like ancestor worship and belief in guardian gods, eventually developed into complex systems of beliefs that included myths about the creation of the world and tales of individual gods and goddesses. These in turn gave rise to a system of rituals and codes of behavior, known as morality.

Almost all religions recognize the need for some form of spiritual practice. These practices, referred to as cultus and doctrinus, are a means of making the ultimate goal of religion more concrete and realizable. They consist of a system of moral principles and rules, usually involving vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that individuals voluntarily take by means of more or less solemn declarations.

Those who have been most active in the “reflexive turn” in anthropology have sought to move away from thinking of religion as a collection of mental states, such as beliefs, experiences, or moods, and focus instead on the ways that the institutions that produce these religious experiences are organized. A leading book in this vein is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). In the course of doing so, he tries to show that contemporary anthropology has been influenced by assumptions that are Christian and modern in character, and that these have shaped its concept of religion.