How to Define Religion


Religion, as a concept for sorting out social kinds, has a long history. It is often used today as a taxon for forms of life that have been labeled by believers or observers, and it is commonly associated with the so-called world religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. But the term can also be applied to practices and beliefs that have not been given a name, or to forms of behavior that are not considered religious by anyone (though they may be believed by some people to be so).

The way in which one approaches the definition of religion makes a difference in what kinds of behaviors it refers to. The most familiar approach focuses on behavior, and references to religion are typically those that involve rituals, prayers, or some other form of devotional practice. This usage is reminiscent of the ancient use of the word in preliterate societies, when it referred to a particular set of beliefs and rituals that was common to all members of a group.

A less familiar, but still quite common, formal strategy for defining religion is to focus on function. The functionalists Emil Durkheim and Paul Tillich viewed religion as a set of concerns that organize a person’s values and that have the axiological function of giving orientation to that person’s life. More recently, a number of sociologists have used a structuralist framework in their efforts to define religion. They have seen religion as a structure of related discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a superempirical, cosmic-level order.

For these sociologists, it was the function of religion to signal a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic universe, and to help people make sense of their experiences. This functionalist approach is reflected in the way that many ethnographic studies of religion focus on the ways in which religious acts bring a sense of meaning and structure to people’s lives.

A criticism of this approach is that it may be too narrow, in that it reflects only the peculiarities of Western religion—in particular, Protestant Christianity—and fails to take into account faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as Jainism and Buddhism. In addition, it is often difficult to separate the functions of religion from the underlying cultural assumptions that animate them, and the desire of social actors to find meaning in their own experience. These concerns have led to a search for more verstehen-like definitions of religion, in which an effort is made to seek understandings within particular social worlds. Such approaches are particularly prevalent in the ethnographic and participant observation fields of research on religion.

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