How to Define Religion

The word religion has so many diverse meanings that a definition of the term is difficult to find. A formal definition approaches the notion of a religious phenomenon and looks for defining properties that characterize it, for example, a feeling of reverence, devotion, or loyalty; beliefs in a deity or gods; worshipping; moral conduct; and participation in a community. A functional approach, such as Durkheim’s, focuses on the social function of creating solidarity or the axiological function of providing orientation in life.

A realist view defines religion as a social genus, a type that exists in all cultures. Such a definition often assumes that the different religions of the world share certain characteristics, for example, a belief in a god, the fear of forces beyond control, and a search for hope.

Various scholars have developed approaches that use both the formal and functional definitions of religion. They use a methodology known as verstehen, or “to grasp,” in order to study the way people understand their own religion. This research can also help us understand the ways that other religions operate.

Some scholars, especially those who are not believers themselves, have criticized the functional and formal strategies of defining religion, believing that they do not take into account a realist view. They argue that a formal and functional definition of religion tends to produce a type of theology that has the effect of domesticating the cosmic Otherness, making it seem less distant from our empirical world (see Hervieu-Leger 1987). These critics suggest that one must first study and then define religion.