How to Define Religion


Religion is one of the most complex phenomena known to humankind. It encompasses all manner of beliefs, rituals, and institutions. It has influenced people throughout history and across cultures. Religion is an essential part of many communities and can help bring people together. But it can also be a source of stress and conflict. Some scientists think that religion is a complex of memes, or inherited cultural traits, and that they are passed down in much the same way as genetic material.

Some definitions of religion are quite broad, such as that of the American religious scholar Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who said that religion is anything that deals with ultimate concern. Others are more narrow, such as the one offered by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871, who defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings.”

A number of approaches seek to define religion by identifying particular characteristics that are common among all religions. These might include, for example, the existence of sacred writings; a concept of salvation; the use of myth and symbol; the creation and maintenance of rituals; the development of a community of believers; a code of ethical behavior; and a priesthood to administer to the needs of the believers.

Still other approaches drop the substantive element altogether and offer a functional definition of religion, such as Emile Durkheim’s (1912) idea that “religion is any set of practices which unites a group of individuals into a moral community,” even if those practices don’t involve a belief in unusual realities. Yet, even with a purely functional definition, it is important to distinguish between the notion of a social kind and the individual phenomena that belong to it.