The Definition of Religion


Religion is the human response to ultimate concerns and can include belief in God or spirits, reverence for certain texts or persons, an afterlife, moral values and practices, rituals, a sense of community and tradition, and even beliefs about what constitutes a good life. Many people find comfort, guidance and meaning in their religious traditions. Religious faith can also provide a way to cope with stress, which can have knock-on effects on health. Research suggests that religiosity can improve mental wellbeing, and may even lead to a longer life expectancy.

The definition of religion has been a central issue in the social sciences. Sociologists have long debated whether to focus on the functional definition of religion, which emphasises its role in creating solidarity, or a substantive definition, which involves understanding religious phenomena as mental states that are invisible to outside observers (see, for example, Weber 1922). Defining religion by function often risks driving theory and determining conclusions, so some scholars recommend proceeding with study and fashioning a definition only afterward. However, with new religions and revitalization movements arising constantly around the world, and with the increasing number of activities that can be labelled quasi-religious, the question of definition has taken on renewed importance (see Hervieu-Leger 1987; Greil and Rudy 1990 on “quasi-religion”).

A functional approach to religion defines it as a set of beliefs and practices that generates social cohesion or provides orientation in life. This approach emerged from the work of Durkheim, who argued that religion is an inevitable part of human culture and that its universality is evident in every society. A variation on this theme was advanced by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve the belief in any unusual realities).

In a symbolic interactionist view of religion, religious experience is the way that individuals engage with and respond to the transcendental qualities of the natural and social environment. This can take the form of religious rituals and ceremonies, which may be highly intense experiences involving crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with those around you, or a sense of being at the center of something larger than yourself. Religious and spiritual practices can also include prayer, meditation, studying sacred texts, worshiping idols, venerating ancestors, and giving money to charity.

Ideally, religion fulfills a variety of functions in human societies: It gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, encourages ethical behaviors, and motivates people to work for positive social change. It is not surprising, therefore, that some researchers have interpreted these findings as evidence of divine intervention in human lives. Other researchers, however, have focused on other factors that might explain these patterns, including the value placed on relationships with others and a sense of belonging to a religious tradition. These factors can be more important in promoting positive outcomes than religious beliefs and practices themselves.