How to Define Religion

Religion is a complex and pervasive human phenomenon, embracing many different ideas about spirituality and cosmology, morality and ethics, and a wide range of practices, including worship, sacrifice, prayer, meditation, and specific rituals. It also encompasses various forms of social organization, from cults to major world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Religions also have a variety of functions, such as giving meaning and purpose to life, strengthening social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, and motivating people to work for positive social change.

Because of the complexity and diversity of what falls under the category of religion, it is difficult to formulate a definition that adequately encompasses it. Attempts at definitions have included lexical definitions (that is, a description of what people generally mean when they use the word), hermeneutical approaches that rely on interpretation, and functionalist approaches that rely on the importance of particular activities or aspects of a religious system. Some philosophers have argued that the term “religion” is a culturally conditioned concept and should be used in a relatively nonspecific way, while others have promoted the idea that religion is essentially a mental representation of reality.

One of the problems with this approach is that it often focuses on hidden mental states, such as beliefs and feelings, and ignores the visible institutional structures and disciplinary practices that produce those states. Some scholars have thus criticized it as reflecting a Protestant bias and have sought to shift attention from beliefs and subjective states to the structures that produce them. This approach, however, risks mischaracterizing the complexity and diversity of religion and has not been very successful.

A more promising approach has been to define religion in terms of the ways people use a set of cultural symbols and practices. The notion of religion as a social genus, popularized by Durkheim and Paul Tillich, focuses on the ways that religions organize values. Other functionalist definitions of religion, such as Hans Jonas’ intelligent application of the existentialist notion of Geworfenheit to his study of Gnosticism or Rudolf Otto’s use of the category of the holy, have emphasized particular types of religious experiences and spiritual practices.

Whatever approach is taken to defining religion, it must be remembered that the development of concepts for social kinds does not wait for language. The search for a univocal definition of religion can quickly result in a minimalist conception that ranks different religions as the same, a sort of lowest common denominator that is inappropriate for a fundamentally empirical discipline such as sociology. Moreover, the definition of religion must be appropriate for the specific historical context in which it is to be applied. Consequently, it may be preferable to use a polythetic approach that recognizes more than one property of religion and that is less sensitive to the particular terminology employed in specific cultures.

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