How to Define Religion


Religion is an important topic and a major part of human culture. Yet, the subject is difficult to define because it includes a range of ideas, values, beliefs and practices that differ across cultures. To make sense of the many variations, it helps to have some signposts in place. One way to think about religion is to view it as a cultural tool. This view suggests that, as humans have evolved, they have developed religious responses to basic questions about life and death. These responses have served a wide variety of purposes, from promoting social cohesion to shaping knowledge and technology. The most common answers have involved belief in a god or gods and the idea of a spiritual dimension to reality.

Another popular approach is to view religion as a system of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order in existence and clothing these conceptions with an aura of factuality. Taking this approach, one might say that any system of symbols and their associated feelings that has been constructed in some culture at some time can be considered a religion. This definition has its limitations, however, since it fails to recognize that religions have always been social constructs. In fact, many of the world’s most important religious beliefs and institutions have developed both in cooperation with, and sometimes in antagonism to, government power.

Still other definitions take a functional approach and emphasize the role of religion in creating solidarity among people. For example, a widely accepted definition by anthropologist Emile Durkheim describes religion as whatever dominant concern unites people in groups and creates a sense of shared meaning in their lives. Another functional approach is taken by Paul Tillich, who describes religion as a person’s overall worldview, including his or her values and ideas about what makes up reality.

Although these approaches to religion differ significantly, they all provide useful starting points for understanding the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. They also help to distinguish religion from magic, cults and sects. They differ, however, from stipulative definitions of religion, which imply that a religious phenomenon is either fully or not a religion.

One such stipulative definition is offered by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who writes that a religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general ordered existence and clothing these conceptions with an aura which renders them uniquely realistic.” Whether or not this view is accurate, it does highlight the complexity of religion and shows why it can be so hard to pin down. Another problem with stipulative definitions is that they fail to include the importance of people’s bodies, their habits and physical culture in the construction of religion. To remedy this, some scholars have proposed adding a fourth C to the classic three-sided model of religion: the concept of community. These newer models of religion tend to be more inclusive and holistic, embracing both religious beliefs and social structures that are based on those beliefs.