Defining Religion


Religion is a social phenomenon that appears in many forms throughout the world. It is characterized by beliefs, ritual behavior, and values that are held sacred. People often find comfort in religion and it is also a source of strength in times of trouble.

Sociologists study religion in a variety of ways. Some focus on textual, historical and linguistic analyses, while others use anthropological, biological and philosophical approaches. Most scholars agree that the field is interdisciplinary and that studying religion requires a combination of these and other methods.

Defining religion is a controversial topic that has long challenged scholars of human culture. The debate centers on the question of how a social phenomenon that is constantly changing and evolving can be described objectively and scientifically. One way to approach this problem is to identify the properties of religion that are not likely to change, even as a society changes and evolves. Another approach is to study religion phenomenologically, seeking to understand its nature and the role it plays in people’s lives.

The definition that is most often used by sociologists is one that defines religion as a set of beliefs and practices that are held sacred. This is often referred to as the “ethics-based” or “theology-based” definition of religion. It emphasizes the importance of moral values such as truth, goodness, and beauty, brotherhood, equality, sacrifice, and help for those in need.

This approach contrasts with the functionalist definition of religion, which focuses on the ways that religious beliefs and practices serve the needs of society. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as a social mechanism that serves to create solidarity and to organize a person’s value system. This perspective is still influential in contemporary sociological thought.

A third approach views religion as an object of study, like any other object in a person’s life. This perspective argues that religious objects are meaningful because of the meaning that people give them. This is especially true of those religions that develop out of natural, philosophical questions about the universe and its workings rather than out of divine revelation. For example, Buddhists view the teachings of the Buddha (Siddartha Gautama [563-483 bce]) as having a universal spiritual truth.

Another way to define religion is to identify the boundary that a given social group has put around what is sacred and what is profane. This is a cultural definition and it involves looking at the boundaries that have been historically established in a given social group and then understanding how these boundaries are negotiated over time.

In studying religion, it is important to recognize that the concept of religion is subjective and that the boundaries are continually shifting and redefining themselves. This flexibility and the fact that the study of religion is interdisciplinary makes it a fascinating and valuable endeavor. However, it is also crucial to recognize that a definition of religion cannot be imposed on a group or a culture. This is why the interdisciplinary approach to studying religion is so important.