The Definition of Religion


As a social concept religion is used to define a genus of human phenomena that has distinctive properties. To identify these, it is necessary to distinguish this genus from other forms of valuation that might be described as less intense or comprehensive. For example, some forms of valuation are not considered religious because they do not involve beliefs about unusual realities.

As such, the definition of religion reflects an ongoing debate that crosses disciplinary lines and includes anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, philology, religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science. It also reflects the difficulty of drawing boundaries between what is and is not considered religious, as even the word itself demonstrates. Religio comes from the Latin for “scrupulousness” or “scrutiny,” and it was often used in antiquity to describe a form of devotion or worship that was especially precise, even as it also referred to the practice of following strict moral rules.

In many cases, scholars who use a formal definition of religion combine it with a functionalist approach. Durkheim, for instance, regarded his early substantive definition as compatible with his later functional theory (Dobbelaere and Lauwers 1973).

Another way to think about religion is through its effect on a person’s worldview or behavior. This approach defines religion as something that affects one’s feelings, culture, morality, and approach to writings or persons. Some scholars argue that to limit a definition of religion to these features reveals a Protestant bias, and that the focus should be on the structures that produce such effects.