Problems With Definitions of Religion

Religion is a broad term, and there are many definitions for it. Some define religion as the belief in a deity, and others as the practice of worship. Still others define it more functionally, as the activities of a community of faith. All of these definitions have problems.

Most of the difficulties in defining religion stem from the fact that religion is a social genus. Hence, it can be present in more than one culture without being identical to them. This makes it difficult to identify what features of a religion are necessary and sufficient to constitute a religion.

In addition, there are those who argue that the notion of a religion is simply a cultural construct. This view has been influenced by the work of philosophers Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and also by Christian theologians like Karl Barth and Ludwig Feuerbach. This position is often called the social construction theory of religion, and it implies that the phenomenon of religion is a product of human aspirations and anxieties.

These concerns about the nature of religion have led some scholars to reject the concept of a religion altogether. This position is most forcefully defended by Talal Asad in his book Genealogies of Religion (1993). Asad applies Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach to demonstrate how the concepts that underlie contemporary anthropology are colored by assumptions that are both Christian (insofar as they conceive of belief as a mental state) and modernist (insofar as they treat religion as something separate from politics).

Some definitions of religion are so broad that they include beliefs and areas of study that most people would not regard as religious, such as cosmology and ecology. This broadness is problematic because it can lead to the inclusion of ideas and practices that are not really part of a religion, but that are nevertheless important in society. It can also obscure the difference between a genuine religion and a political ideology.

Other issues with definitions of religion stem from the difficulty of separating out the beliefs and behaviors that distinguish religions from each other. In the past, philosophers have tried to do this by examining the distinction between religion and the beliefs and feelings that are attached to them. For example, they have looked at whether a religion is based on a promise of immortality or a promise of salvation from evil or punishment.

This has left many philosophers with a view that the only way to distinguish a religion from other phenomena is to look at the beliefs and feelings that make up a religion. However, these attempts have been criticized because they are based on a flawed assumption. The idea that the only way to differentiate a religion from other phenomena is by looking at their beliefs and feelings has been shown to be false by the existence of secularism in the West. Secularism is not a religion, but it has had many of the same functions as religions in history.