How to Define Religion


Religion is a broad category of human belief systems, behaviors, and practices. It encompasses a wide range of concepts and experiences, from cosmologies to mystical experiences. The study of religion requires an approach that can accommodate these diverse elements and their interaction in human lives. The question of how to define religion has long posed problems for scholars. Should the definition be substantive, focusing on what religious believers believe; or functional, focusing on how religions influence people?

Some early sociologists used a formal approach. Emil Durkheim analyzed religion in terms of social impact, arguing that it generates a sense of belonging to community (social cohesion); promotes behavioral consistency (social control); and offers strength for life’s transitions and tragedies (morality). The functionalist analysis was extended by anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who focused on the meaning of symbols within cultures. Other anthropologists have developed hermeneutic methods, which treat actions as if they were texts that said something (Geertz 1974).

The issue of how to define religion has also generated debates about whether it is possible or desirable to have a single, global, coherent description. Other scholars have criticized this attempt to reduce the complexity of religion and have instead advocated that it be studied on a case by case basis, with attention paid to how different social actors construct definitions of what they experience (Runciman 1969).

A major change has occurred in recent years as scholarly perspectives have become more reflexive about the concept of religion. A number of anthropologists and sociologists have moved away from the “objective” approach that has characterized much of the field for so long, embracing cultural and postmodernist concerns. This new focus on the constructed nature of what is referred to as religion has led to a growing emphasis on the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in the study of this phenomenon.

Some scientists have argued that the positive effects of religious and spiritual traditions are due mainly to the fact that these practices provide a set of tools for coping with life’s stresses. These are not the same as the scientifically proven effects of prayer and meditation, but they do have their own benefits. A study by the National Institutes of Health suggests that religious and spiritual beliefs have an impact on the mental health of their adherents. The findings are consistent with those of other studies examining the role of religion in society. For example, religiosity is associated with greater levels of volunteerism and higher grades in school. The study of religion is thus a rich source for research into how humans manage their lives and their interactions with others. For more on this topic, see agnosticism; atheism; existentialism; esotericism; epistemology; existentialism; faith; fundamentalism; hell; heaven; jesus; morality; prayer; shamanism; spirituality; and theism.