The Definition of Religion


The term religion covers a vast variety of phenomena in different cultures. It is therefore no surprise that scholars have argued about whether or not a definition of the term is appropriate or even possible. Some have opted to treat religion as an abstract concept for sorting social kinds. A stipulative definition is one that sets out a set of properties that a member of a class must have (such as the ice-skating example above). Stipulative definitions can be critiqued on the basis of their lack of clarity or on the grounds that they exclude important things or fail to capture the range of phenomena within the class.

Other scholars have opted for an alternative approach that drops the substantive element and defines religion in terms of its distinctive role in human lives. We see such an approach in Emile Durkheim’s definition, which turns on the function of a religion to unite people into a single moral community and thereby promote their well-being (whether or not that system involves belief in unusual realities). We also see a functional definition in Paul Tillich’s definition, which turns on the axiological role that a religion plays in organizing a person’s values.

In many religions, the past and future can be ‘visited’, either to relive or repair wrongdoing (rituals for repentance or forgiveness are common) or to prepare for an uncertain future (with eschatological ceremonies for Judgment Day and the Last Rites). Likewise, the body is often seen as a sacred vessel in religious practice. These sorts of activities can be found in mystery religions as well as missionary religions, in small, local communities and in global networks.