How Religion Is Defined


Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that encourage moral values, promote peace and social cohesion. It also offers a framework for understanding the universe and our place within it. It is often based on faith in supernatural powers, deities and spirits. It also includes a system of rules and punishments. It can help people live more fulfilling lives and develop a stronger sense of purpose and belonging. It is not for everyone, but it provides structure, community and guidance to many people.

The word “religion” is derived from the Latin verb religio, which means “scrupulousness” or “conscientiousness.” In western antiquity, it was commonly used to describe the intense devotion and fear inspired by gods and goddesses, as well as to the taboos, prayers, promises, curses, and covenants that regulated interactions among people. In the medieval era, religion became synonymous with any observance of ritual and belief in an afterlife. In the modern era, it has been used to describe all of these as well as the adherence to any philosophies or ideologies that help people make sense of their experiences and guide them through life.

In the field of sociology, religion has been defined in a variety of ways. One approach, called functionalist, looks at the way a religious phenomenon serves a particular function in a society. This definition is often used by writers such as Emil Durkheim, who argues that religion creates solidarity and gives meaning to people’s lives. Another functionalist is Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values (whether or not these involve belief in any unusual realities).

A realist definition looks at the way a religious phenomenon exists as a social reality independent of concepts people hold about it. This is the approach taken by scholars such as George Smith and Margaret A. Asad. Their aim is not to undermine the concept of religion but rather to point out that assumptions baked into it distort our grasp of the historical realities it names.

How to define religion raises important questions about how scientific research should proceed. Should researchers draw sharp lines around religion, to be able to tell with certainty whether something is religious or not? Or should they aspire to a fuzzy-edged, broad definition that allows for the unfamiliar and surprising? The answers to these questions have implications for all types of research.