The Definition of Religion


Religion is an institution of beliefs and practices that a group or individual regards as sacred or of great spiritual significance. Depending on the religion, this includes a wide variety of activities. It may include prayers, meditation, rituals, and belief in a supreme deity or gods. Some religions also include a system of ethics, which provides guidance for human conduct. Sociologists, historians, and scholars of comparative religion study religion by examining its beliefs and values, institutions, and history. They often use the tools of other disciplines to gain insight, such as psychology which views religious experiences and feelings, sociology and social anthropology which view the organization of a religious tradition’s institutions, and literary and other studies that seek to elicit the meanings of myths and symbols.

In the nineteenth century, several philosophers and anthropologists began to analyze the concept of religion. Emile Durkheim, a founder of the discipline of sociology, distinguished three different versions of what he called a substantive definition: The first involved a belief in the same kind of object or reality. The second involved a certain amount of social cohesion or solidarity, and the third included a certain amount of devotion or worship.

Henri Bergson (1861 – 1925) developed an “ideal type” of religion that he regarded as the highest form. He emphasized the unity of all life, and the necessity to achieve some kind of reconciliation between man and nature. He viewed the universe as a whole, and a supreme deity presiding over it. He distinguished between two forms of religion, one centered on nature and the other based on an idea of transcendence.

The most common definitions of religion are lexical in that they imply a recognition that there is some sort of divine order to the world and that man is bound to it. Such a definition is narrow and would exclude many religions from the category, but it is also more precise than some of the other definitions which are sometimes used to identify a religion.

Other definitions are more functional and involve a specific kind of role that a religious institution can play in a person’s life. In the twentieth century, such a functional approach became more prominent in sociology. Durkheim’s definition is functional in that it focuses on a social function of creating solidarity, and Paul Tillich’s definition is functional in that it relates to the function that a religious institution can play in organizing a person’s values.

Some academics have adopted a more sophisticated version of the functional approach. These are the so-called “polythetic” approaches. These abandon the classical view that every instance of a concept has a necessary and sufficient property and treat it as a prototype. However, there is still considerable debate about whether such an approach is useful, and even about the extent to which it can accurately describe the semantic expansion of the concept of religion. For example, it seems unlikely that the definition should be broad enough to encompass such things as capitalism.