The Definition of Religion


Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that people use to give meaning to their lives. Often, it is a source of comfort during stressful times. It also provides a sense of community and support. It is important to note, however, that religion can also be a cause of division and stress. For example, it is common for religious groups to discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs.

The study of religion cuts across a number of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies. Because of this, there is no single definition of religion. Most scholars take a multidisciplinary approach to the subject, studying the different dimensions of a particular tradition in turn. For example, psychology views the beliefs and feelings of believers; sociology studies the institutions that hold those beliefs and values; and anthropology examines the myths and symbols of a given religion.

Some scholars, such as the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich, took a functional approach to the concept of religion, viewing it as whatever dominant concern binds people together in a societal unit. This view, which has become a standard in sociology, can be seen in the work of many scholars today.

Others have used a more classical perspective, taking it as a given that every religion contains a certain set of essential properties that makes it distinct from other forms of human life. This view has been popularized by the American social scientist and historian William James Tylor (1820-1897). A related but somewhat more subtle view was articulated by the German philosopher Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who promoted Romanticism and emphasized the importance of mythology.

A third and final approach is to take a polythetic perspective. Proponents of this view array a master list of “religion-making” features, and argue that any phenomenon that shares a large enough number of these features can be called a religion. The idea is that a definition of religion must be broad enough to capture the full variety of human belief systems.

These approaches to the study of religion have led to a wide range of definitions. The question remains, however, whether any of them are truly satisfactory. It is difficult to create a definition of religion that will accurately describe all instances of it in the world, especially because of the wide diversity of human cultures. Nevertheless, scholars continue to debate the concept of religion in search of an approach that will allow them to develop meaningful theories about its role in society.