How to Define Religion
Religion is a complex phenomenon that has a wide range of influences on people’s lives and on society at large. It is also a source of stress and division in societies, particularly for those who face discrimination within religious communities, such as those who hold differing beliefs from the rest of the group.
There are many ways to define religion, but the most common is that it is a set of beliefs and practices that center on questions about the meaning of life, may involve the worship of a supreme being (the “god” in the ancient Greek sense), and which is transmitted from one generation to the next. In this way, it provides a foundation for a moral order and in the past has supplied answers to many important questions of great importance.
It is also true that a variety of other phenomena serve as sources for value and meaning in the lives of human beings, including science and family. However, for some people, this is not enough; they need something more. They need a belief in a higher power that will be their guiding light and will provide guidance for their lives.
Some scholars have suggested that religion is a social genus, a group of beliefs and practices that appear in almost every human culture and constitute a fundamental characteristic of the human condition. This view has been adopted by scholars in sociology and anthropology, who have found that the same core elements can be found in all cultures, regardless of the specific religious practices that are part of the broader culture.
But this approach can lead to a sweeping and univocal definition of religion, which might well be inadequate for a fundamentally empirical discipline. Moreover, it can be criticized for its ethnocentricity and insensitivity to the distinctive nature of nontheistic faith traditions such as Buddhism or Hinduism.
Another approach to defining religion is functional, which turns on the functional features of its manifestations. A classic example is that of Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, which unite into one single moral community called a church” (1912).
This definition turns on the function of creating social cohesion in societies. It is a relatively modern approach that has been developed by scholars in sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
It has also been used by philosophers to explore the role of religion in the lives of people. In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber have addressed religious topics in their writings.
The most important function of a religion is to provide direction for people’s lives. This function is often referred to as the axiological dimension of religion, but there are also many other functions that contribute to its ubiquity and effectiveness, such as the promotion of social solidarity and the provision of resources to members of a particular religious tradition.