The Different Definitions of Religion


Religion is a word with a broad definition that includes all kinds of beliefs and practices. It is also a term that is often used to describe things that are not beliefs, such as magic or cults. Some people who use the word don’t seem to understand what the word means, which leads them to define it in ways that exclude many things from being religious.

The fact that there is so much variation in what people think of when they hear the word “religion” explains why there are so many different approaches to understanding it. There are a number of types of definitions of religion that have been offered by scholars and laypeople. Some definitions focus on specific characteristics that are thought to be necessary for a religion, such as belief in gods and spirits or some kind of spiritual dimension or greater reality. Other definitions focus on behaviors, such as prayer or rituals. Still others focus on the ways that people deal with ultimate concerns, such as life after death or their fate in the world.

One of the most influential books in the reflexive turn in religious studies was Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). In this book, Asad uses Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach to argue that, if we take a particular feature of religion—belief in gods or a supernatural dimension, for instance—and try to explain it scientifically, we run into a number of problems. For one thing, any such explanation will only address that particular feature of religion and not the phenomenon as a whole.

Other scholars have rejected the notion that there is such a thing as a true or correct definition of religion. These critics of a monothetic or pure definition argue that, given the enormous diversity in religious beliefs and practices globally, there is no such thing as an essence shared by all the various forms of what people call religion. At most, they claim, there are family resemblances among the various religions.

Still others have taken a more functional view of religion, and have defined it in terms of the role that a form of life can play in a society. This type of definition, popularized by Emile Durkheim in 1912, drops the requirement that the form of life believe in some distinctive kind of reality and focuses instead on how a form of life unites people into a moral community.

Some of these functional definitions have been labeled “dithetic” because they have two kinds of criteria to work with, substantive and functional. For example, Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion emphasizes the relationship between metaphysics and axiology, or how prescriptions for life are rooted in accounts of the nature of the universe. Other scholars have worked in this space between a dithetic definition and a purely functional one, trying to make it more precise. But the difficulty here is that it can be difficult to pin down exactly what makes a tradition different from one that doesn’t ground its normative prescriptions in accounts of the nature of the universe.