What is Religion?

What is religion? How should we define religion?

Last Updated on January 20, 2023 by Karl Thompson

There are two general approaches to defining religion: functional which tend to have broad, more inclusive definitions of religion and and substantive approaches which tend to have narrower, more exclusive definitions of religion.

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Functional definitions of religion

Functional definitions define religion in terms of the functions it performs for individuals and/ or society. For example, Yinger (1995) defines religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life.’

Problems with functional definitions of religion

  • They are too inclusive: almost any movement with a belief system of any kind and a committed group of followers would classify as a religion – for example, communism, nationalism, and even atheism.
  • Because functional definitions are too inclusive, it makes the growth/ decline/ impact of religion impossible to measure.
  • Functional definitions are based on subjective opinions and assumptions about what the role of religion is. Rather, the role of the sociologist should be to uncover what the functions of religion are through empirical investigation.

Substantive definitions of religion

Substantive definitions of religion define religion in terms of its content rather than its function.

Emile Durkheim‘s, approach to defining religion can be regarded as a substantive definition – Durkhiem argued that religion was the collective marking off of the sacred from the profane.

A common approach to defining religion substantively is to define religion in terms of a belief in a higher power such a god or other supernatural forces. For example Robertson (1970): ‘Religion refers to the existence of supernatural beings that have a governing effect on life’.

Problems with substantive definitions of religion

They can be too exclusive. For example, definitions which are based on a belief in God would exclude Buddhism.

Substantive definitions might still be too inclusive. For example, people who believe in fate, magic, or UFOs might be included as religious according to the above definition.

Defining religion: why it matters

it may well not be possible to come up with a definition of religion that pleases everyone! There is an enormous variety of religious beliefs and practices globally, and the main problem with defining religion is to find a definition which encompasses this variety without including beliefs or practices which most people do not regard as religious.

The definition of religion that a sociologist subscribes to will have a profound impact on their conclusions about the role and impact religion has in society. This is most obviously the case where the secularization debate is concerned: if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, then it would appear that religion is in decline. However, if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, this decline will not be so apparent.

Signposting and relating posts

This is the first topic students should study as part of the beliefs in society option within A-level sociology.

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