The Definition of Religion


Religion is a set of beliefs and values that help people make sense of the world around them. It often includes a moral code that guides believers in their relations with other members of the religious community, outsiders, and the supernatural. It also commonly involves a set of spiritual practices, such as prayer, ritual, and scripture reading. Religions differ in their beliefs about the nature of the universe, human life, and death. They may also differ in their beliefs about a supernatural deity or gods.

The concept of religion is a central one in the social sciences and humanities, but it has not always been given the attention it deserves. The field has been characterized by a debate over whether the term should be used to describe a set of phenomena or to describe a particular group’s beliefs and practices. There has been a move to define religion more broadly in order to capture the variety of social phenomena that might be described as religious, but this approach has also been criticized for blurring the distinction between what is and is not religious.

There have been a number of different approaches to the definition of religion, including formal and functional. A formal approach looks for a structure that resembles known cases. For example, Zeldin (1969) uses the notion of a discontinuous relationship between an empirical and superempirical order to describe religion. Lemert (1975) offers a similar approach.

A functional approach tries to find attributes that are common to all religions. For example, it might be argued that belief in a god or goddess is a necessary element of any religion. This approach has been criticized for blurring the distinction between the religious and nonreligious, because it suggests that believing in a god or gods is a religion and not simply an attribute of some other phenomenon.

Other definitions of religion attempt to sift out the cultural peculiarities that are unique to a specific culture. This method has been criticized for reducing the concept of religion to what might be expected from an anthropological survey of a particular culture, but it has also been defended because it helps to highlight how social science theories are influenced by disciplinary conventions.

Regardless of the approach taken to the definition of religion, there is agreement that it must include some kind of spiritual or ethical dimension. The three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good is a classic description of what any religious group explicitly and implicitly teaches its members. To this can be added a fourth C, for community. A well-known variation on this approach is Catherine Albanese’s four-dimensional model of religion (1996). In addition to the traditional dimensions of truth, beauty, and goodness, this model identifies the social components that make up the religious group, such as its habits, physical culture, and social structures. For example, some scholars have suggested adding a materialist dimension to this model to recognize that, although the human body and its experiences are not part of a religion’s doctrines, they are still important features of a religious group.

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