Definitions of Religion


Religion is a social phenomenon with many definitions. Some scholars have approached it as a category of human experience, others as a set of practices or even as an individual’s valuation process. To be a religion a concept of the supernatural must exist, and beliefs must be held with fervor. Other religious characteristics include rituals and an ethical framework. In some cases, religion has provided community, moral guidance and hope to believers. While it is possible to worship alone, most people who follow religion do so in a group such as a church or synagogue.

The earliest historical religions are thought to have emerged along the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. They were polytheistic, meaning they recognized more than one god. These religions developed from tribal totems and ancestor worship into elaborate belief systems that incorporated stories of the world’s creation, tales of divinely inspired heroes and guardian spirits, and rituals for honoring the gods.

A sociological functional approach to religion defines it as a system of beliefs and practices that functions as a cohesive force for a societal unit. Its adherents are united into a moral community by shared ideas about life, death and the future. This definition is used in legal and governmental decisions such as the Civil Rights Act, which protects people who believe in any religion from discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.

Alternatively, some philosophers and intellectuals have favored a substantive definition of religion. These definitions, popularized by philosophers Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche, focus on the idea that humans are created in the image of the Creator. These theories of humanity suggest that we have a unique ability to perceive the Creator in the world around us and, therefore, can have a relationship with Him.

The problem with substantive definitions is that they create and sustain the notion that there are specific ways to define religion, which in turn, reinforces certain ideological power dynamics. These definitions also assume that there is an underlying essence of the religion that can be identified and defined, which, like a particular shade of red hair, is something that is present in all members of the population.

Other definitions of religion have been proposed by scientists, including psychologists and neuroscientists. The scientists who favor this approach argue that there are specific psychological needs in humans that can be fulfilled by religious experiences. They also argue that there are specific neurological processes that occur during these experiences, which can be scientifically described and measured.

Other theorists have criticized both functional and substantive approaches to religion, arguing that neither fully captures what makes religion so powerful. Scholar Jonathan Z. Smith famously compiled a list of more than 50 different definitions of religion, and he notes that there may never be a single definition that adequately encompasses the vast diversity of human belief. He suggests that a better way to think about religion is as a method of valuation that is intense and comprehensive.

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