The Definition of Religion


Religion entails a variety of beliefs and practices. There is tremendous diversity globally, and the challenge for any definition of religion is to find one that encompasses this vast variety without including beliefs or behaviors that most people do not regard as religious. There are a number of strategies to achieving this goal. One is the use of polythetic definitions, which recognize many properties as characteristic (or even prototypical) of religions but do not claim that any are essential. This approach avoids the claims of monothetic definitions that a social category has an ahistorical essence and also reduces the likelihood of ethnocentrism.

Another strategy is to pursue formal or logical definitions. This approach looks for a structure that can group together facts about religion, such as the structure of related discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a supraempirical, cosmic-level order (cf. Durkheim 1912). This approach may be criticized for looking for patterns that only occur in some religions, rather than in all of them.

Some scholars use functional or verstehen definitions, which seek to understand religion in terms of its effects on society. This approach tends to emphasize the role of religious beliefs and practices in the formation and maintenance of a moral code that promotes harmony, fairness, and the conviction that there is a supernatural world that can be communicated with through prayer, scripture, and ritual. It also tends to focus on the active role of the religious person in maintaining his or her viewpoint and promoting its acceptance.

Posted in: Gembing