The Definition of Religion


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they hold to be holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is commonly viewed as an expression of human beings’ ultimate concerns about life and death, their place in the world and the universe, and what should be done with their lives. These concerns are typically expressed in terms of relationships with or attitudes toward gods and spirits, although a more humanistic or naturalistic form of religion might express them in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward the broader community or the natural world.

While there are many definitions of religion, two major approaches are favored by scholars: functional and substantive. The functional approach defines religion in terms of the role it plays in a society, rather than in terms of the existence of a distinctive kind of reality. Emile Durkheim viewed religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unites people into a moral community, regardless of whether those beliefs and practices contain any supernatural elements. Cooley defined religion as a microfunction of human nature, centering on a craving to make life seem rational and good.

While functional definitions are often quite broad, they make it difficult to assess how much or how little religion actually exists. They also tend to exclude a great deal of what might be considered religious in the past, such as practices involving celestial bodies and forces in nature, from being called religion, since they lack a belief in a supreme deity. More recently, scholars have criticized the reliance on functional definitions of religion and pushed for a more rigorous, ethnographic examination of the concept.

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