The Definition of Religion


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics. Some definitions of religion include the belief in an unseen God or a supernatural power, and ritual acts such as prayer and sacrifice. Others emphasize the concept of morality or a spiritual community, and focus on the ideas, myths and symbols that make up the religion. Sociology and social anthropology study the institutions of religion, while psychology and literary studies examine religious feelings and experiences, and seek to elicit meanings from myths and symbols.

Some scholars have used formal definitions to categorize religious behavior. Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, written late in his career (1912), provides a classic example of this approach. This method of classifying religious facts allows them to be grouped, even on the basis of secondary traits, and to generate explanatory theories.

In contrast, some scholars have tended to define religion functionally, in terms of the role it can play in a society. This view of religion has been particularly strong in the wake of the rise of nineteenth-century European industrialization and secularization, when Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx all wrote on the subject. Marx thought that religion was the extension and perpetuation of the social stratification of society, a false remedy for workers’ economic suffering.

Both kinds of definitions can be useful to the social scientist, although some writers warn against using substantive or functional definitions as the starting point for research. The danger is that these definitions can drive the study of religion and determine its conclusions, rather than letting the data guide the theory (Harrison 1912).

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