How to Define Religion

Religion is the belief in a supernatural power or powers and the practice of ceremonies that evoke feelings of awe, piety, and devotion. It focuses on morality, the meaning of life, and afterlife, and it also offers comfort to its followers, providing them with a sense of community and belonging. In addition to its spiritual teachings, it teaches how to live in accordance with these teachings, and provides a framework for society through codes of conduct. It is hard to define, and it appears to be a universal human experience and need. The vast majority of the world’s 6.5 billion people participate in one or more religions. The world’s twenty-plus major religions range from Christianity to Rastafarianism and Scientology.

In the 19th century, scholars debated whether religion was a social genus or a functional concept. Those who took a genus approach, such as Durkheim, saw religion as a phenomenon that is present in every culture, irrespective of its specific content, and therefore named an inevitable feature of the human condition. Those who took a functional approach, like Paul Tillich, viewed religion as the dominant concern that organizes values and gives orientation in life. The problem with these definitions is that they often overlap, and what counts as a religion by one set of characteristics may not count as a religion by another.

This disarray is exacerbated by the fact that definitions of religion vary widely among scholars and even within disciplines. Some definitions are lexical (such as Frazer’s statement that religion consists of beliefs in powers higher than man and attempts to propitiate or please them) while others are based on the idea that religion is a kind of activity, such as the work of sociologist Rodney Needham. Others, such as the polythetic definition offered by William Alston, seek to identify the underlying elements that all religions have in common.

Some have argued that the concept of religion as an object-oriented concept reflects a Protestant bias, and that it would be more accurate to see it as a set of mental states. In addition, they have pointed out that religious illiteracy is widespread, and that it fuels prejudice and antagonism and hinders efforts to promote respect for diversity and peaceful coexistence at local, national, and international levels. Others argue that the concept of religion is a cultural construct and that it should be decoupled from its historical association with European colonialism, so that people can learn about many different faiths without trying to convert them. Still others have argued that it is impossible to define religion, and that the best we can do is encourage learning about the variety of ways that humans have interpreted the universe around them and their place in it. All of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses. It is worth noting, however, that the concept of religion has been redefined at least four times in its history, and that each revision changed the way people lived.