The Meaning and Definition of Religion


Religion is a vast category of human cultural activities. It includes belief in supernatural beings, a framework through which people can make sense of their lives and the world around them, a set of moral principles for living, and often a set of institutions to manage those beliefs and practices. It is the subject of intense debate and is widely recognized as a major force in the world.

How to define Religion is a longstanding issue in social science and humanities, and has implications for the very concept of religion. Many scholars have worked on the definition, which cuts across disciplines such as anthropology, history, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and sociology.

Historically, most approaches have been “monothetic,” meaning that they assume that all examples of a particular social phenomenon will share defining properties. Durkheim’s definition of religion, for example, is monothetic in that he defines it as the “collective mind-set” that binds people together, promotes behavioral consistency, and provides strength during life’s transitions and tragedies.

Other scholars have taken a functional approach, such as Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominates a person’s values and organizes those values into a system that claims transcendent status for itself. Lincoln takes a similar functional approach, although he adds a fourth C, namely community, to his definition of religion because it “provides opportunities for social interaction and formation.”

A more recent trend has been the reflexive turn, in which scholars pull back, so to speak, and analyze how the categories we use to sort our reality are constructed, rather than being innately there. This scholarly perspective on the definition of Religion is especially valuable because it exposes the arbitrariness and artificiality in a classification that has been used for centuries to describe real-life social phenomena.

The debate about the meaning and definition of Religion has raised issues that will be familiar to anyone who has grappled with other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (such as literature, democracy, or even the word “culture” itself). It is worth remembering that we are talking about a conceptual taxon that was imposed at a very specific time and place for very specific purposes. Nevertheless, the taxon continues to be used in this way, and the issues it raises will continue to be of interest to a wide range of scholars in many disciplines.

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