The Definition of Religion


The word religion has a broad range of meanings, which is partly the reason it has become a subject of study in so many disciplines—anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and even cognitive science. This multidisciplinary interest has sparked a debate over the nature of religion. The definition of religion is central to this debate because it determines the scope and limits of the research. A definition that is too broad will be too general to be useful; a definition that is too narrow will exclude important aspects of the phenomenon, such as belief in supernatural beings.

A substantive definition is one that defines religion in terms of certain beliefs or personal experience. One well-known substantive definition is the one given by German philosopher Rudolf Otto, who defined religion as “experience of the holy”. Otto believed that human beings become intuitively aware of transcendent realities through their experiences of their opposites on earth. This view of religion is sometimes criticized as ethnocentric, because it focuses on Western religion (especially Protestant Christianity) and ignores faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some forms of Buddhism and Jainism.

A functional definition of religion focuses on the role of religion in people’s lives. A functional definition was put forward by the German philosopher Emil Durkheim, who defined religion as the “collective feeling of being in a mysterious relationship with a powerful reality beyond the natural world.” This approach to religion also includes the esoteric, spiritual, or magical elements of some religions. A functional definition of religion was further developed by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.