The Definition of Religion


Religious faith, and the act of practicing a religion, are vital aspects of many people’s lives. It is an important contributor to their health, wellbeing, and happiness. Moreover, the practice of religion contributes to the strength of families. According to studies, those who regularly attend church are more likely to be married and have higher levels of marital satisfaction.

Yet, despite these clear positive impacts, the concept of religion is contested. The definition of religion is the subject of ongoing debates across a range of disciplines, including anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies. These debates have often focused on the meaning and nature of religion, and how it should be defined.

While some approaches to the definition of religion focus on its cognitive aspects, others emphasize its affective or conative dimensions. There are also varying viewpoints on the role that feelings should play in religion. Some have argued that, given the complexity of human feelings, it is difficult to determine whether or not they are “religious.” In other words, they may be either religious or not, but it is impossible to know for sure.

Some scholars have opted for a functional definition of religion, such as Emile Durkheim’s (1912) assertion that religion is whatever practices unite a group of people into a moral community, regardless of their beliefs in supernatural realities. A similar view can be found in Paul Tillich’s (1957) definition of religion as a dominant concern that organizes a person’s values.

Both functional and substantive definitions have their shortcomings, however. Substantive definitions can be too broad, for example by treating belief in ghosts or the afterlife as sufficient to make something a religion. Alternatively, they can be too narrow by failing to include faith traditions that do not emphasize belief in a god or the supernatural.

Another issue is that, as with most abstract concepts, it is difficult to pin down exactly what a religion is. This difficulty is exacerbated by the vast number of different religious beliefs and practices in the world.

Consequently, the debate over the definition of religion is likely to continue for some time. Nevertheless, understanding the debate will be beneficial for those interested in pursuing the study of religion. It will provide a better framework for thinking about the nature of religion, and how it should be understood and measured. It will also help inform discussions about the impact that religion has in our society, particularly in areas like education, psychotherapy, and public policy. Ultimately, the debate over the definition of religion should serve to help us understand the importance that it plays in the lives of so many people. It should also remind us that, regardless of the variety of religious beliefs and practices, most people see themselves as part of a larger spiritual community. The more we can all understand one another, the more we can work together to build a better future for all.