The Definition of Religion

Religion is a complex concept that encompasses many different practices and beliefs. Traditionally, scholars have defined religion in terms of beliefs in supernatural or unearthly realities, but today it is more common to define religion in terms of the role a belief system can play in a society. These definitions are called “functional” or “non-essentialist” definitions. Both have merits, but they can also lead to problems. For example, functional definitions tend to exclude other phenomena as religious, and they can be misinterpreted by people with a strong desire for a coherent worldview. On the other hand, substantive definitions can be too narrow and ignore important aspects of a culture.

The nature of a particular definition is important, because it will determine the way in which the term is used. Some scholars have viewed religion as a social genus, meaning that it is something that appears in all cultures and is inevitable. Others, such as Cooley, have viewed religion as a microfunction, a phenomenon that satisfies a specific need of human nature.

A third approach defines religion as a group of social activities that are designed to help people live together in a moral community. Emile Durkheim described this type of religion in his 1912 book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. A more recent interpretation is the one provided by Ninian Smart in his 1996 book The Anatomy of Religion. He uses the analogy of a biological organism to describe the relationship between religion and society, and he argues that religion is the ‘primary cell’ that gives life to the social organism.

In the past, some scholars have criticized the functional and substantive approaches for the way in which they depict humans. They argue that if the definition of religion is based on a function, it creates an image of a passive person. This image is reinforced when the definition of religion is based on innate properties that are shared by all people. These social scientists have proposed a Verstehen (understanding) approach to the study of religion, in which the goal is not to find a universal explanation but to understand the religions as they are understood by participants.

This approach is favored by many modern philosophers, including Wittgenstein and Habermas, as it allows for the existence of multiple, competing religions in a society and the possibility of a religious “death” or decline. The theory also makes it possible to study the effects of change on a religious organization, and it can be used to explain why some religious changes are more successful than others. Moreover, it is easier to use the theory of religion as a tool in sociology than other types of theoretical concepts because it is more readily compatible with ethnographic and participant observation methodologies. However, critics have pointed out that the approach can result in a bias toward studying certain groups of believers and that it does not provide a complete picture of any religion.