The Definition of Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon, involving the beliefs, rituals, and social structures of groups of people who are united by common experiences. It involves beliefs about the nature of the universe and human beings, a moral code, and a system of values that shapes a person’s behavior. It may also involve a person’s relationship with or attitudes toward particular gods, spirits, and texts or places, and many other aspects of the human experience.

The term religion can mean any set of beliefs, practices, and values that a group holds in common, or it may refer to the whole system of religious activities of a culture. The word is so ambiguous that it can be used in various ways, and philosophers have offered a variety of definitions. Some definitions of religion emphasize the fact that a person must believe in something extraordinary to be considered religious, and they are known as “substantive” definitions. Other definitions use different criteria, and they are called “functional” definitions. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever sets of practices unite people into a single moral community, and Paul Tillich defined it as the dominant concern that organizes a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities).

Because religion can affect so many aspects of life, it is important to make clear how we define it. Some definitions imply that a person must be active in his or her religion to be considered religious, and this is known as “nominal” religiosity. Other definitions imply that a person must believe in certain things to be considered religious, and these are known as “real” religiosity.

Some people have a view of religion that is extremely broad, and they are sometimes called polytheists or non-theists. However, even this is not very helpful as a way to describe people’s beliefs and practices, because it can exclude many forms of religious experience. For example, there are many people who worship a number of different gods but do not consider themselves to be polytheists, and there are also people who believe in one god but do not believe in any other supernatural beings.

Other people take a narrower approach to the meaning of religion, and they are called religious fundamentalists. This view of religion is usually associated with the religious right in the West, but there are similar movements in other parts of the world. This approach to religion emphasizes that it is not a social genus, and that there is no such thing as an inevitable religion that exists in all cultures. It does not imply that such a view is correct, but it is worth considering the problems that such a view raises. A more rigorous approach to the study of religion has been taken by philosophers who have analyzed the nature of religion in terms of its construction and history. Such a study is known as “reflexive” because it pulls back the lens through which we normally look at religion and reveals its constructed nature.