The Need For a More Precise Definition of Religion

Religion is a cultural phenomenon that appears in the most diverse cultures. It includes beliefs in transcendent beings, spirituality, cosmological orders and moral codes. It also involves devotional practices and ritual observances. Religions differ in their views of God and the afterlife, and are characterized by their adherence to strict ethical rules. This diversity calls for the development of a more precise definition than has been provided so far. A new definition will help to clarify the nature of this concept, its scope and its relationships to other social genuses like literature, democracy or culture itself.

The demand for a more precise definition of religion is not only important for sociology, anthropology and psychology but also for philosophy. Some scholars believe that a lexical or real definition is possible; the term can be corrected by reference to its referents, so that Buddhism is not a religion but capitalism is (Southwold 1977: 367).

Other scholars argue that a real or lexical definition is insufficient and that there is a need for a polythetic approach to this topic. Polythetic approaches allow the distinction between different forms of religion to be articulated without resorting to univocal terms such as belief, faith and religious experience. One might therefore define religion as a form of life that is anchored in a community, embodies the notion of the holy and contains beliefs and practices aimed at the creation of a better world. This would provide a useful definition for the study of religions without falling prey to the hermeneutical trap of assuming that there is a single essential meaning for the term.