Is There a Single Correct Definition for Religion?

Religion is a complex phenomenon with a wide range of interpretations. Philosophers, scientists, and ordinary people have all tried to define it. It has been suggested that there is no single definition for religion that satisfies everyone, and that the various approaches are all complementary. Some philosophers have argued that to understand a religion, one must study its culture and its history. Scientists argue that a science of religion is possible and could yield insights into human behavior. Psychologists and neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, think that there is a religious experience in the human mind. Anthropologists believe that early religions developed as a result of humans’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting. These efforts to control the environment took two forms: manipulation, through magic, and supplication, through religion. The earliest historical religions, which have been documented in written records, developed along the Nile River and in Mesopotamia. These were polytheistic religions, believing in many gods and goddesses. Over time, these religions developed into complex belief systems, rituals, and rules of behavior.

Some scientists and philosophers, especially those who study the psychology of religion, have argued that religious beliefs and practices fulfill certain psychological needs in human beings, such as the fear of death or a need for more meaning than is provided by everyday life. These needs are thought to be genetically transmitted, so that the genes for religion are passed from generation to generation.

Others, particularly social scientists, have argued that a religion has a powerful effect on the society in which it exists. They have used terms such as “embedded religiosity” and “religious anthropology” to describe the process of religion becoming an integral part of a social group, such as a family, community, or nation. They have also analyzed the effects of the practice of religion on such things as learning, health, economic well-being, self-control and discipline, and empathy for other human beings.

One argument against the idea that there is a single, correct definition for religion is that it is impossible to prove that any given one of a variety of definitions for the term is wrong. This assumption rests on the notion that a definition for a term can be corrected by showing that an instance of that term is not a member of its class, in the way that a lexical definition for a word can be corrected by pointing out that it refers to an item other than that which it is defined as (e.g., Southwold 1978: 367). This line of reasoning confuses the distinction between a real or lexical definition and a stipulative definition.

The term’religion’ has been defined in different ways by scholars and is widely used to describe a wide variety of groups in the world, ranging from Hinduism to Christianity, Buddhism to Shinto, Islam to Judaism, and Catholicism to Hockey. These different ways of defining religion are referred to as monothetic and polythetic approaches.