How to Define Religion


Religion is a broad category of human behaviors that people consider meaningful and valuable. It is a central aspect of people’s lives and the source of much of their moral guidance. It is also a subject that generates enormous amounts of interest and controversy. The question of how to define religion is one of the defining issues in the study of it.

Different approaches to this issue differ in the way they set up boundaries for what counts as a religious phenomenon. Some define it sharply, in order to ascertain with certainty whether something is religious or not; such a definition is called “substantive”. Others define it broadly, so that everything that can be classified as a religion is included. This approach is called “functional”.

A functional definition of religion takes as its starting point the belief that religion is a socially useful phenomena. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion turns on the idea that it serves to bind people together into moral communities. A similar interpretation can be seen in Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as whatever dominates a person’s life and organizes his or her values (whether or not the beliefs involved in that concern involve belief in unusual realities).

Another approach is to take a pragmatic view. This defines religion as the most intense and comprehensive form of valuing in a culture. A person who identifies with a particular religion may be willing to live according to and even die for the beliefs and practices that this faith inspires in him or her.

This view of religion is rooted in the notion that people need meaning and value in their lives, and that this need is not served well by any other source. It is also the source of many religious traditions.

However, there are many problems with this view. Most importantly, it reduces the concept of religion to a set of cultural conventions and fails to take into account that religion is a global phenomenon with complex and diverse characteristics.

Other problems are related to how the concept of religion is used. Stipulative definitions of religion force scholars to accept whatever definition is offered without having a real understanding of what the term means. De Muckadell’s ice-skating example illustrates this point. Moreover, such a stipulative definition does not allow for the critique of religion because it is so far removed from a lexical definition that it is useless for almost all purposes. A better approach is the reflexive turn in religious studies, exemplified by Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). This approach uses Michel Foucault’s genealogy to show that the concept of religion anthropologically is shaped by assumptions that are both Christian and modern. A stipulative definition can therefore be criticized by offering a different definition, such as that of ice-skating.