What Is Religion?


Having been around for millennia religion has been a major force in the development of human culture. And it is still a significant influence on people today. In many places the practice of religion provides a powerful source of strength and stability, promoting healthy family life and social cohesion. Religion also plays an important role in the health of individuals, reducing the incidence of domestic abuse and crime, and encouraging good mental and physical health. Religious communities provide a wide range of support services to help people cope with problems, from helping those with addictions to providing food for the hungry. It is no wonder that, on average, people who are religious are healthier and live longer than those who are not.

But how do we know which religion is best? In terms of numbers of followers and countries that have an official state religion, Islam clearly has the lead, with 1.6 billion adherents, followed by Christianity and then Hinduism. But in terms of philosophies and teachings, it is a difficult question to answer. There are, after all, many different religions in the world, and each one presumably has its own view of what is the most true and best Faith.

In order to make sense of the phenomenon that is religion, it is helpful to distinguish between functional and substantive definitions. A functional definition looks at the way that a particular group of phenomena can be sorted into a class, with a given set of secondary characteristics. In this way it is possible to identify what makes that class unique.

Durkheim, for example, used a functional definition in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1899). This approach is based on the idea that there are certain elements that can be found across all groups of believers and that these can be grouped together under the category ‘religion’.

Some anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), have also used a functional definition, arguing that a religion is “a complex system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of the general order of existence and clothing these with an aura of factuality” (p. 89).

Other researchers, such as Rodney Needham, have taken a different approach to the concept of religion. In his book The Nature of Religion (1975) Needham suggests that, rather than thinking about a group of distinct beliefs or practices, it is more useful to think of religion as a ‘family resemblance concept’, an abstract category which sorters use to classify human culture in much the same way that they might sort strains of bacteria by their biological properties. The key difference here is that, while a taxonomic concept has no essence, a family resemblance notion does not.

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