The Definition of Religion

Religion is a very complex set of human social behaviors and beliefs. The etymology of the word “religion” is from Latin religio, meaning “affection” or “belief.” Hence the term “religion” is usually thought to refer to a specific set of feelings and beliefs that people have concerning spiritual, supernatural, or divine realities. In the modern world, there are several different ways to describe what religion is. Some people define it as a belief system that includes rituals, moral codes, and sacred texts. Others think of it as a way that people deal with life’s ultimate concerns, or their views about the nature and destiny of humanity and of the universe. Still others see it as a social structure that is coercive, in some cases in collusion with, and at other times in opposition to, government power.

Because of its complex and long history, many different approaches to studying religion have evolved. Most scholars today seek to describe religion from a neutral point of view, not to criticize or defend particular systems of faith. This is a necessary reaction to the tendency of theologians, especially in ancient and medieval times, to use religion as a tool for justifying their own ideas about God and his relationship with the world.

It is also a necessary reaction to the tendency of some students to try to prove that religion is just a myth and has no real substance. There are those who take the opposite view, and argue that it is a mistake to try to understand religion in terms of its cultural features or merely as a sprinkling of social practices, and instead that it must be understood as an essential part of human life.

Attempts to develop a definition of religion have ranged from the lexical, such as the dictionary definition, to the sociological, such as those based on the various anthropologies of religion. It is generally agreed that a definition must be broad enough to encompass the many ways that people deal with their ultimate concerns and their beliefs about the universe.

Among the more important issues in the study of religion are the question of whether a concept like “religion” can be defined at all, and if so, what its essence is. Two basic arguments are made in favor of a definition: (1) that it is possible to classify practices, or at least a group of them, in the same way that one classifies social formations; and (2) that there must be some kind of family-resemblance concept that can be used to sort out the diverse practices that fall under the category of religion.