How to Define Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon that has been shaped over thousands of years by the human need for faith and meaning. It is the primary way that people express their values and beliefs and has historically been the basis for moral order and social cohesion.

It can include beliefs in a supreme being, an afterlife, reincarnation, and an ultimate goal or purpose to life. It is also often associated with a code of ethics, rituals, and a belief in a higher power or authority. It can be used to unite and discipline groups, as seen in the Inquisition or Salem witch trials. It can also create division and conflict, as seen in the many religious wars of history and today’s Islamic-Christian rivalry.

The definitions of religion vary widely and are based on one’s personal experiences, beliefs, and values. Many scholars take a functionalist approach to the concept, viewing it as any system of beliefs and practices that generates social cohesion or provides orientation in life. Others, such as German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, took a critical perspective on religion and saw it as an institution that supports patterns of inequality.

As the variety of practices that are considered to be religion has expanded and shifted over time, some scholars have pulled back to examine its constructed nature and ask whether it is possible to define it objectively. Rather than using the classical view of a term as a taxon, which looks at its necessary and sufficient properties to categorize it, some have argued for a family-resemblance concept, in which the defining characteristics are not necessarily based on what the individual believes but by how it is organized (see this article by Laurence and Margolis). Other scholars have rejected both approaches and instead emphasized the culturally specific and historically evolving nature of the concept.