The Definition of Religion

Religion is one of the most complex and enduring aspects of human life. From ancient beliefs in gods and spirits to current global religious trends, it has influenced societies since prehistoric times.

Yet the study of religion has been plagued by disagreement over what exactly it entails. A general definition can be derived from the Latin roots religio and religare, meaning “respect for what is sacred or supernatural.” Thus, religion encompasses all practices, rituals, traditions, beliefs, and moralities that respect something as holy or spiritual. But even this is difficult to pin down as the lines between religion and philosophy or culture or tradition or myth are blurry at best.

To help clarify matters, the field of religion studies has developed a number of definitions of religion over time. These fall into two broad categories: monothetic and polythetic. Monothetic definitions focus on what religion is, whereas polythetic definitions focus on how it works. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses.

A key problem with a monothetic definition is that it tends to exclude phenomena such as magic and science, both of which can be extremely powerful in the lives of some people. This is because the term religion entails not only metaphysics (belief in the transcendent) but also axiology (belief in what is right and wrong).

Another problem with this approach is that it may overlook the fact that many religions are highly pragmatic and morally rigorous. For example, some of the world’s most powerful religions include teachings about how to deal with suffering and death. Such teachings can make religious belief more robust than it otherwise would be and can help explain why scientific discoveries and philosophical criticisms have not deterred the followers of these religions.

A polythetic approach to the study of religion is intended to address these problems. Proponents of this approach focus on the ways in which religion functions, rather than what it is, and argue that if something has enough of the features that define a religion then we should call it a religion. This approach is often inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance,” in which he argues that a category can be defined by a set of crisscrossing and partially overlapping properties rather than a single property that defines all members of the class (see Smith, 1982: ch. 1).

The development of this kind of definition of religion has coincided with the rise of social theorists such as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. These theorists, reacting to the economic and social upheaval of nineteenth century Europe, all examined how religion functions in society. Durkheim and Weber argued that religion is an important part of society, while Marx viewed it as a tool for the perpetuation of class inequality. These social theorists all have shaped our understanding of how to study religion. Their ideas remain in use today, and will be for some time to come. They have helped to establish the study of religion as a major field of inquiry.