Religion is a set of beliefs and practices characterized by a view of the universe that is at once transcendent and ephemeral, a moral code that provides guidance for one’s life, a community of people with similar values and interests, rituals to mark important events in life, and a hierarchy of spiritual and supernatural entities. The definition of religion is an area of great controversy and debate among scholars, with many different approaches to defining it. Some approach the issue from a philosophical standpoint, others use social science methods and theories, while still others focus on the experiences that are considered religious. The field of sociology is particularly interested in how the various aspects of religion interrelate to form a whole.
Philosophical approaches to the study of religion typically divide into those that are idealist and those that are materialist. The idealists stress the formative power of religion over human history, while the materialists point to its empirical nature. The social scientists Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer adopted a somewhat different perspective, arguing that religious belief and practice provide a framework of meaning for a society and contribute to its stability.
Traditionally, sociologists have approached the definition of religion by employing functional analysis. This method emphasizes the functions that a phenomenon serves in a particular situation and distinguishes it from other phenomena by identifying those characteristics that are unique to it. Edward Tylor, Emile Durkheim, and Paul Tillich used this approach to define religion. These were called “substantive” definitions because they defined membership in a religion as the presence of some particular belief.
Functionalism has a major limitation, however. Its reductionist view of the world and its components can make it difficult to understand how religion is experienced in other cultural contexts or in societies that differ from the society being studied. Moreover, it may lead to the view that a certain type of religion always serves a particular function and therefore must be classified in a specific way.
For example, the functionalism of Clifford Geertz defines religion as the system of symbols that acts to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that the resulting moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic to men.
Substantive definitions are also controversial because they impose a certain ideological, passive image on humans. If, for instance, one argues that religion is nothing more than the belief in some kind of unusual reality, then it is easy to assume that believers are passive, unresponsive to scientific findings and other criticisms. This view, however, fails to take into account the contributions of people’s bodies, habits, physical culture, and other aspects of their existence that may affect the emergence of their beliefs. This is one reason why scholars such as William Lincoln have argued that to define religion solely in terms of institutional structures and disciplinary practices misses the point.