The Definition of Religion


Religion is a system of belief and practices. It is believed to promote moral conduct and to unite people in a common identity and goal. It can also be a source of conflict and violence, as illustrated by the persecution and killing of individuals and whole communities in the name of their religious beliefs. However, it can be a source of social unity and cohesion, as demonstrated by the way in which many societies have built their governments around their religious institutions.

There are a number of different theories about religion, with some scholars offering differing definitions of the term. One theory, called a monothetic approach, is based on the idea that every instance of a religious concept will share certain defining properties. This is similar to the way in which scientific theories operate, with some arguing that you can correctly identify a bacteria by looking for a particular set of properties it must have.

Other definitions of religion are more functional and take into account the influence that religious concepts have in the world. Emile Durkheim, for example, argued that religion is a belief system that helps in social integration and establishes a collective conscience. His theory has proved to be very successful, as we see in the fact that religion continues to have a great influence on the political systems of many countries.

The functionalism of religion, however, has its critics. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, argues that it is wrong to define a religion in terms of its effects on the world because this could lead to a generalization about all religions and exclude some that may actually be very important. Then, he says, we would end up with a list of “things that must be present for something to be a religion” (Appiah 2002).

Another criticism of the functional definition of religion is that it tends to be used as a way to justify the power of religious groups in the world, since this definition tends to include all forms of organized religion. This is also criticized by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that the functionalist definition of religion is not only illegitimate but has helped to fuel European colonialism and global imperialism.

In addition, there is a school of thought that suggests that it is possible to define religion in terms of the ways in which it is embodied in human culture. This approach tries to look at religion as an activity rather than an object of study, and it seeks to find patterns in the way that religious cultures have developed over time. This approach has gained traction amongst some sociologists and philosophers. However, other critics have gone even further than this, arguing that the entire concept of religion is an invented category and that we should stop treating it as though it corresponded to something real in the world. This argument has been largely dismissed by academics and scholars in general.