The Definition of Religion

Religion is an important, diverse, and contested category. It encompasses practices ranging from devotion and prayer to sacrificial giving, exorcism, astrology, and the recognition of people, texts, and objects as sacred or holy. Nevertheless, it appears to be an essential component of human life, with most world citizens belonging to one or more religious organizations. This article explores a variety of perspectives on the definition of Religion, including etymological histories and semantic shifts, theories of cultural taxonomy, and the emergence of polythetic approaches to the concept.

Most definitions of Religion seek to describe what it is that distinguishes the group of practices under consideration. Some, such as Durkheim’s, draw on a social function to establish solidarity and other such systems, while others such as Paul Tillich’s focus on the axiological role of providing a framework for human values.

Human beings are often faced with limitations on their project of self-realization. These may be proximate, such as trying to achieve a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful, or less painful life; or they may be ultimate, such as achieving some form of eternal rebirth or the final end (eschatology). Religions offer maps of time and space that make these limits somewhat easier to navigate. These maps are transmitted and defended through rituals, but they also offer guidance in the form of moral teachings, moral codes, and spiritual or ethical mentors. In addition, religions provide a context for sanction and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation.