The Definition of Religion

The word religion has a wide variety of meanings. It can refer to a belief in spiritual beings, to a particular deity, or to a specific religious tradition such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. It can also be used to describe a person’s behavior or worldview. A definition of religion must take into account all these different aspects.

Because of the diversity of beliefs worldwide, scholars have struggled to find a definition that captures this diversity without being too broad or narrow. Some scholars try to define religion functionally, looking at the ways in which it generates social cohesion or provides a sense of direction for people’s lives. Others focus on its mystical qualities, seeing it as something that makes people feel at one with the universe or that transcends the material world.

Earlier attempts at defining religion have been more formal in approach. Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and Cooley’s Microfunctionalism are examples. This kind of definition seeks to group religious facts into categories, using secondary traits that are common or shared among groups. It has the disadvantage of excluding those who are not religious from the category and it may be difficult to apply in studies of cultures that are diverse.

Other scholars have argued that a substantive definition of religion resists an ideological image of humans as passive, subordinated to institutions or merely motivated by instinct. They point to the fact that religion can be a powerful force for change and that it has been a source of repression.