How Religion Is Defined

Religion is an umbrella concept for a range of social practices whose paradigmatic examples are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It is common today to think of the concept of religion as a taxon, a way of sorting a broad array of cultural types. Two issues arise when trying to understand this broader taxonomy: 1) the way that people define the concept of religion; and 2) whether or not there is any sense in which the idea of religion can be understood as having essential properties.

A variety of different definitional strategies have been adopted. Some, like the one proposed by Rodney Needham, focus on a set of features that are necessary and taken together, jointly sufficient for something to be considered a religion. These features, typically, include:

Another approach focuses on the social functions of religion and considers what is it that makes people want to follow religious paths. This approach has been advocated by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, and a variation of this view was offered by Paul Tillich in 1957. Tillich’s definition turns on the axiological function of providing orientation for people’s lives.

This approach, while it has some benefits, has several drawbacks as well. It tends to overlook the importance of ritual and other symbolic interaction, which is often at the heart of religions. It also tends to ignore the way that some religions (such as Buddhism, Jainism and Daoism) emphasize immanence rather than transcendence and therefore do not entail belief in supernatural beings.

Other critics of substantive definitions argue that they are ethnocentric, and that by focusing on beliefs, personal experiences and the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural they overlook religious traditions that do not subscribe to these ideas. These criticisms have some merit. However, it is difficult to develop a more general theory of religion that does not use the notion of belief as its core.

A third way to think about religion is a polythetic approach that offers a threshold number of features that must be present for something to be considered religious. This is a useful way to articulate the boundaries of a class, but it does not produce clear lines between religion and nonreligion and may obscure important distinctions.

It is generally agreed that a religion must involve a set of systematic beliefs. These beliefs are not ad hoc or random, and they must address issues that go beyond the purely physical and scientific: life, death, morality, meaning and purpose.

Finally, a religion must be active. This includes not only prayer but the performing of rituals, ceremonies and other acts of worship. Rituals can be deeply meaningful for believers and may be accompanied by emotions such as joy, sadness, fear or love. They may involve crying, laughing, screaming or trance-like states and can bring about psychological and spiritual transformations. They can also be a means for the forgiveness and repentance of wrongdoing. They can even be used to provide guidance in life and to quell fears about unknown occurrences such as death.