The Definition of Religion


Religion is a social construct that carries significant influence in people’s lives. It often serves a number of functions in society such as giving meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing social unity and stability, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change. It can also be a source of stress in individuals’ lives. This is especially true for those who are discriminated against or have conflicting beliefs within their religious communities.

There is an ongoing debate about the definition of religion that cuts across many disciplines including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, psychology and cognitive science. The debate is centered on the extent to which the concept of religion captures a necessary and sufficient set of features that distinguishes it from other social formations.

It is generally agreed that the notion of religion as a category-concept emerged with the development of human language, and that the emergence of this social genus was probably not limited to European history. The term religion is currently used to refer to a wide variety of practices that are distinguished from each other by the way they are practiced and what they believe. This makes it difficult to sort these diverse phenomena into a coherent taxon, and the discussion that follows focuses on two philosophical issues that arise for such social taxonomies.

The first concerns whether the concept of religion has a structure, or is simply a retooling of an older term that was associated with scrupulous devotion. The second issue is how the concepts of substance and function should be combined in a definition of religion.

One approach is to take a polythetic view of religion. Advocates of this view array a master list of religion-making features, and then claim that anything that has enough of these features is a religion. A problem with this strategy is that the features are usually based on prototypes—more or less the things that most people think of when they hear the word religion. In addition, these prototypes tend to be idiosyncratic and therefore unlikely to apply broadly to all human societies.

Several scientific studies have demonstrated that religiosity is related to various forms of positive well-being, such as social support, moral motivation, and happiness. It is possible that this well-being is partly mediated by the fact that religion provides a system of explanations for life’s difficulties that helps people make sense of their experiences.

However, it is equally important to note that negative aspects of religion exist, such as the reinforcement of social inequality, resentment toward members of other religions, and hostility and violence motivated by differences in religious belief. For these reasons, it is important to explore all the dimensions of religion in order to understand its complex impact on society. Despite the challenges, it is clear that a full understanding of religion is worth the effort. The articles that follow provide a sampling of the rich literature on this topic.