How to Define Religion

Religion is one of the most difficult subjects to define. This difficulty is not confined to sociology, ethnology, or psychology; it is equally evident in theology, philosophy, and history. Even among scholars who agree on a general definition of the concept, there is much debate about how it should be applied. Critics of the term argue that its usage is too broad, that it is a catch-all for various unrelated phenomena, and that it obscures important differences. Others contend that the concept is a necessary tool for analyzing human life and social organization, or that it is at least useful in understanding other forms of belief and experience.

One way to approach the study of religion is to examine its underlying beliefs and practices. A good way to do this is to look at religious rites and rituals. For example, a 7th grade class studying the transition into adulthood might investigate Jewish rites such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah using first-person accounts, articles, and video documentaries. Then the class would discuss the meaning behind the rite and how it might affect belief or a sense of community.

Other approaches, usually in the form of philosophical arguments, are also valuable. For example, Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as “a feeling of absolute dependence” emphasizes the essential feature of this phenomenon. Another argument, popularized by Emile Durkheim, defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community, whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities.

In the twentieth century, however, a new approach came into play, dropping the substantive element and defining religion in terms of a specific role that a form of life can play in one’s life–that is, a functional definition. This approach is still the most prevalent today, and it has led to a variety of different interpretations of the term.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they fail to account for all the factors that might influence the way a group of people sees its world. To fully understand any religion, it is necessary to consider the influences of other cultures, economics, and science on the underlying beliefs and practices.

A third and more controversial approach to the study of religion is to criticize the concept itself. Especially in the context of post-colonial or Foucauldian studies, this position contends that the category of religion is deeply implicated in the practice of western imperialism and neo-imperialism. Hence, any definition of religion should be critically evaluated in light of these criticisms.

For the most part, these three approaches are all “monothetic”–they take the classical view that a category will accurately capture instances only if it fastens on a single defining property. In recent years, though, some have favored “polythetic” approaches that recognize the presence of multiple properties. This is similar to the way that computer programs identify different strains of bacteria by recognizing their co-appearance in a series of data.