Definitions of Religion


Religion is a remarkably widespread and persistent human phenomenon. It serves several important functions: it explains the meaning of life, makes bearable the suffering and disappointments that inevitably arise in this life, provides an ego-affirming identity, and knits together a society’s values into a cohesive whole.

Religions also serve to control society by giving powerful sanction to certain types of social behaviour. For example, Christianity defines moral expectations and enforces them by placing the divine stamp of approval on them, and Hinduism sanctions the caste system which regulates social relations among different classes of people.

One approach to definitions of religion is to use a functionalist definition which argues that the importance of religion in people’s lives depends on its function. Durkheim used this definition to explain how religious-like behavior helps create solidarity in a group, and the same argument has been used by scholars such as Horton, Glock and Stark, and Paul Tillich.

A second method is to treat the concept of religion as a class and compare instances in that class to see which have common characteristics, as was done with bacterial strains in the development of a computer program that sorted them according to their physical properties. This is known as a polythetic approach. Over the past half century or so there has been a shift away from monothetic definitions of religion to polythetic approaches which abandon the classical view that every instance must have exactly the same set of defining properties in order to be accurately described as a member of that class.