How to Define Religion

Religious systems vary greatly in their beliefs, practices, and rituals. However, most people in the world believe in some religion, and most practice it regularly. It is difficult to define the word religion because of its vast diversity. Nevertheless, many scholars have attempted to do so. They have defined religion substantively (such as by belief in spiritual beings) or functionally (as the source of social cohesion or life orientation). Some definitions are monothetic, meaning they have one criterion; others are polythetic, having more than one criterion.

The most common type of substantive definition of religion has been that it involves a belief in the existence of a transcendent god or supernatural beings. This view was developed in the 19th century by scholars such as Durkheim. More recently, scholars have emphasized the importance of understanding the religious dimension of people’s lives. This has led to a verstehen approach to definition, in which scholars attempt to understand what is important to the people who practice their religion.

While this is an important perspective, it overlooks the fact that most religions are not simply about belief in a god or spirit. They are also about the way in which that faith impacts and organizes people’s behavior, worldview, morality, culture, and approach to particular writings or persons. Thus, we need a new paradigm to understand religion in its full complexity. The best hope is to expand the model beyond the three-sided axis of the true, the beautiful, and the good to include a fourth C, for community.

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