How to Define Religion


Religion is one of the most important and controversial aspects of human culture. It provides people with a sense of meaning and purpose, and helps them to understand their place in the world. It also plays an important role in the development of morality, and is responsible for many of the world’s social institutions. There is a vast literature on religion, and scholars from a variety of disciplines are interested in it, including anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and most recently cognitive science. However, the concept of religion remains difficult to define. The difficulty stems from the fact that it is a social phenomenon, and definitions of social phenomena typically require a combination of both substantive and functional criteria.

Substantive definitions rely on beliefs, personal experience, and the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. They tend to be ethnocentric, and exclude faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness (such as Buddhism). Functional definitions rely on the function of religion in society. They typically focus on the way that religion creates solidarity and provides guidance for life. These definitions are generally less suited to a historical or anthropological approach, but they are useful in describing the ways that religions operate in the modern world.

Neither of these approaches provides a complete picture of religion, since they neglect the ways in which spirituality is integrated with identity and culture. For example, many so-called “world religions” are based on a shared set of cultural values, and the lines between a religion and other social formations such as philosophy, tradition, and culture often blur.

A new generation of scholars has challenged these monothetic and functional definitions by proposing a “mixed” definition of religion. It includes both a metaphysical dimension and an axiological dimension, and requires that religions be grounded in a worldview and articulate normative prescriptions for human life.

The argument is that all religions have these features, and that the differences between them lie primarily in the details of how they are implemented in the world. This definition has gained broad support among researchers, although it remains controversial among some who would like to see more of a distinction between religion and other forms of belief.

There is an ongoing debate about the nature of religion that cuts across disciplinary boundaries, and it is essential to take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding this complex phenomenon. The contributions of anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and cognitive science have all been crucial in shaping the current discussion of religion. The future of this debate will depend on the extent to which the various fields involved can work together. Increasingly, scholars are using the insights of other disciplines to inform their own, and the debate is now taking place at an international level.