How to Define Religion


Religion is a large, contested category of human practices and beliefs that can take many forms. Whether a particular activity is religious can be determined either substantively (by whether it involves belief in a unique kind of reality) or functionally (by whether it creates community). As the number of different activities and beliefs that people identify as religious has increased, scholars have debated how best to define the concept. The scholarly debate has cut across disciplinary lines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and religious studies, among others.

Some scholars, influenced by the ideas of Continental philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, have suggested that we should stop treating religion as if it corresponds to something that exists outside of our sphere of influence. This has led to a widespread claim that there is no such thing as religion. However, this claim is problematic because it denies that religion names a class of social realities and prevents us from understanding why those social realities have the properties they do.

Substantive definitions of religion are criticized for not taking into account that some people do not believe in supernatural beings. They are also accused of being ethnocentric, because they focus on the beliefs and experiences of Western religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and neglect other traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which do not have a central god.

In response to the problems of substantive definitions, scholars have developed functional definitions of religion. They define religion as whatever set of practices unite a group of people into a moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in unique kinds of realities. This approach is also called polythetic, because it recognizes that there are crisscrossing and partially overlapping features shared by a variety of phenomena that are called religions.

Both substantive and functional approaches have their limitations. Functional definitions are often accused of being too broad, because they include activities that do not fit a conventional idea of what is religious, such as superstitions and political activism. In addition, they may exclude non-theistic religions such as Jainism and Daoism.

Some scholars have proposed a third approach, which has been dubbed “eclectic.” Eclectic definitions avoid both the problem of defining the concept too broadly and the problem of excluding certain activities that are commonly identified as religions. They treat religion as a collection of features that have some association with each other, and seek to understand why these features appear together in certain types of activities and beliefs. The result is a classification that is much more flexible than either substantive or functional definitions, but it can still lead to overgeneralizations and distortions in the interpretation of data. For example, a computer program that sorts bacterial strains by their ability to reproduce can still generate inaccurate conclusions about the characteristics of different bacteria. The same is true for classifications of cultural phenomena. Nevertheless, eclectic classifications are increasingly being used in the study of religion as people realize that there is no single, agreed-upon set of characteristics that distinguishes the different religions.