How to Define Religion


Religion is a social genus that encompasses a huge diversity of beliefs and practices worldwide. It is not easy to define in a way that includes all of this variety without including beliefs or practices that most people do not regard as religious. Substantive definitions tend to be too broad and therefore to exclude some important aspects of human life and culture, such as belief in fate, magic, or UFOs. They also create a dichotomy between “religious” and “secular,” which may not be relevant or useful.

In the field of sociology and anthropology, scholars often look at religion in terms of one’s primary worldview and how it shapes thoughts and behaviors. This view is common among sociologists, although it is not accepted by everyone. Some scholars argue that this approach to religion obscures the fact that religion is much more than just an idea about God or a transcendent Absolute. It is an integral part of a person’s worldview, and thus their identity, and influences the choices they make in their daily lives.

Functional approaches to religion focus on the ways in which it binds a person’s values together, whether or not these beliefs include supernatural ideas. This was the approach taken by Durkheim, who defined religion as whatever beliefs and practices generate solidarity, and by Paul Tillich, who based his definition on an axiological function: the belief that life is meaningful or worthwhile.

A more radical approach comes from the philosopher Talal Asad, who argues that the concept of religion as a social taxon is an invention that does not correspond to any real social reality. Asad’s critical aim is not to reject the existence of religion but rather to recognize that assumptions baked into this concept have distorted our grasp of its historical realities.

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