How to Define Religion


Across the globe, religion is practiced by millions of people. It is an important part of their lives and beliefs, and many of them are convinced that their faith is the only true one. Religion can bring communities together, but it can also cause divisions, and over the centuries religion has been a major source of violence. Individuals and entire nations have been willing to kill, torture, and persecute those who don’t share their views on religion. It is because of this dichotomy that scholars have struggled with the question of how to define religion.

A number of approaches to defining religion have been proposed. Some scholars, like Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have used a formal definition. Their definitions focus on a social function of religion such as solidarity or an axiological orientation to life. Others, such as Charles H. Horton, have taken a more substantive approach, seeking out beliefs and practices that are universally recognized as religious.

The functional and substantive definitions both have their strengths and weaknesses, but there is a growing trend toward polythetic definitions of religion. These definitions attempt to avoid the claim that a social category has an ahistorical essence. In addition to avoiding this claim, they try to identify as many properties of religion as possible, recognizing that some may be more common than others. They may also include beliefs and behaviors that most people do not regard as religious, but which scholars recognize as a central part of the religion in question.

In doing this, they seek to create a set of criteria that can be used to distinguish among religions and to help explain why some of them appear more successful than others. A key problem with this approach is that it can easily become ethnocentric. In other words, it can be easy to find a “typical” religion and use it as a template for identifying all of them, but this can lead to an overestimation of the similarities between religions that exists even in contemporary society.

Several other scholars have adopted polythetic definitions of religion, trying to create a social scientific classification that can be used to sort out the different beliefs and behaviors that are deemed religious. These classifications are sometimes called taxonomies, and they are based on the idea that there is a class of human phenomena that manifests itself in a similar way with different features. These are known as the characteristics of a social genus, and they can be sorted by looking at a variety of properties. The result is a classification that is not as rigid as either the substantive or functional definitions, but which still provides an effective tool for studying religion.