What Is and Is Not a Religion?


Religion is one of the most controversial and confusing concepts in human history. What was once a simple concept for scrupulous devotion has been retooled into a variety of radically different kinds of social practices and beliefs. It is so contested that academics have developed both substantive and functional definitions of the term, and a variety of stipulative definitions.

In many ways, the debate about what is and is not a religion reflects larger controversies in the academic study of societies and cultures. There is a growing awareness that the way we use the concept of religion can shape what gets studied, what gets left out, and what kind of theories can be constructed to analyze it.

This realization has led to a great deal of reflexive work in the study of religion, with scholars challenging the assumption that the phenomena we study are “real” or that our terms have any objective meaning. There has been a strong influence in this work from continental philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein (see Wittgenstein, Ludwig ) and Michel Foucault (see Foucault, Michel ).

The question of what is a religion has also been affected by the fact that a lot of terrible things have been done in the name of religion and by religious people. The historical record is filled with mind-boggling cruelty: massacres, wars of aggression, expropriation of minorities, torture, mass suicide, rape, intellectual property theft, forcible conversion, and other abuses.

These facts make some people hesitant to accept any definition of religion. They fear that any definition will be wrong or inaccurate. However, it is important to distinguish between a real or lexical definition and a stipulative definition. One can correct a real or lexical definition, but one cannot correct a stipulative definition.

One common way to stipulate a definition is to array a set of features that are thought to characterize religion. In this approach, if something has a sufficient number of the “religion-making” features, it will be a religion. The features are often derived from prototypes, the kinds of things that first come to mind when the word is heard. This is a problem because prototypes are influenced by cultural peculiarities, and thus might not provide the best guide to what counts as a religion in other cultures.

The other way to stipulate a definition of religion is to define it by describing the social processes that produce it. This approach, which was pioneered by Clifford Geertz, is sometimes called a functional definition. It emphasizes the role of religion in generating and maintaining social groups and the power dynamics that accompany them.

Functionalists have argued that the social production of religion is a dynamic process that involves a series of interactions. In this view, a religion is a particular social form that emerges and evolves in response to certain historical forces, such as the development of technology, the availability of natural resources, and the desire for control.