The Definition of Religion

Religion is an ancient and universal phenomenon that has taken many forms. Today it is a term that describes the set of beliefs and practices common to a group of people, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. It can also be used to describe a certain region or historical period, such as Roman Catholicism or the Yoruba religion of Africa.

The concept of religion has long been a subject for debate, with scholars taking differing approaches to its definition. One method is to seek a formal definition, a means by which all cases can be grouped and classified. Another approach is to seek a functional definition, a way of classifying all cases according to the distinct role that they play in human society. A third way is to take a qualitative approach, focusing on the distinctive qualities that are associated with religious formations and their impact on human life.

Some scholars have attempted to create a univocal definition of religion by listing the characteristics that must be present for something to be considered religious, such as belief in a transcendent being or divine power or the practice of rituals. These univocal approaches can be useful in distinguishing between different religions but can become problematic when applied to individual human societies.

Other scholars, such as Emile Durkheim, sought to classify religions by their social functions. Durkheim defined religion as any system of social formations that bring a group of individuals into a moral community, whether those systems involve belief in unusual realities or not. This function-based definition of religion is more appropriate for comparative research because it takes into account the fact that not all religions have the same characteristics, and therefore cannot be classified using a formal or quantitative criterion.

Still other scholars, like Rodney Needham, have pushed for a polythetic definition of religion, a classification that requires more than one characteristic to qualify as a religion. Needham compared the study of religion to a taxonomy of bacteria, suggesting that the classification of religions could be approached by analyzing the properties that separate them from each other. Those whose characteristics co-appear in a significant enough degree are considered members of the same class.

Finally, some scholars have argued that it is a mistake to consider only beliefs or any other subjective mental states in defining religion, as this misses the point of its social significance. These scholars argue that religion should be studied as a complex of institutions, disciplinary practices, and even power relations. Others, including some from the Verstehen school of social science, have argued that to study religion without considering its relation to human action and institution would be misleading (Schilbrack 2021).