How to Define Religion


Religion is a broad social taxon. It encompasses a vast array of practices and beliefs, some of which are ancient and widely known to the general public, while others may be unfamiliar or seem strange or illogical. Many people hold conflicting views about religion, some of which may be rooted in theology or philosophy, while others may have more pragmatic or utilitarian motives. For example, religion may serve several functions in society, including (a) providing meaning and purpose for human life, (b) reinforcing social unity and stability, (c) promoting physical and psychological well-being, and (d) motivating people to work for positive social change.

Scholars have long debated how to define the concept of religion. Some have tried to find a way to classify religious phenomena based on their essential characteristics, focusing on the kind of reality believed in and the types of practices involved. This type of definition is referred to as a substantive definition. Others have opted for a functional approach, such as Emile Durkheim’s, which defines religion as whatever system of practices unites a group into a moral community, or Paul Tillich’s, which focuses on the function of organizing values in a person’s life.

Lastly, some have gone a step further and argued that a substantive or functional definition of religion should be rejected in favor of an understanding of the concept as a complex phenomenon. These scholars point out that it is not uncommon for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, or “culture” itself, to be subject to wide-ranging semantic expansions.

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