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Toward a Definition of Religion

One of the peculiarities of the academic study of religion is that scholars spend a large amount to time trying to define exactly what they are supposed to be studying. In reality, trying to define religion is not as easy as it may seem.   The very concept of "religion" may be problematic.  The term "religion" comes from a Latin word "religio" that, at root, means "to tie back/connect."  It originally referred to rites that honored one's ancestors. In contrast, the Chinese word that is often translated as "religion" literally means "education"! Obviously, the Latin/western concept of religion differs in some fundamental ways from some eastern cultures.  In addition, some cultures do not even have term that corresponds to the concept of religion. Why?  Because what we might consider religion is actually just a part of their society and culture.  They do - and cannot - conceive of "religion" as a separate compartment of their lives and cultures. It is so thoroughly integrated into their lives and customs that it is impossible to say where "religion" ends and the non-religious begins. For example, until the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in the 6th century, the Japanese did not even have a name for their religion. It was simply a part of who they were, and, consequently, they felt no need to "name" it.

Nevertheless, we must come to some agreement about how to define the term religion. Almost every text book of religions begins by listing the various possible definitions of religion along with a critique of many of those definitions. While this is necessary, it must be remembered that any adequate definition of religion is not just a starting point; it is also a conclusion that is based upon observation, study and reflection. In other words, defining religion is to a certain extent a circular, ongoing process. We start with what one may call a "working definition" of religion.  We then observe those phenomena that fall under our definition of religion and  use the observations to refine and modify our definition. Subsequently, we will used the refined definition as the basis for further observation that will help us describe and define religion even better.

 Consequently, throughout the course, we will refer back to the question of defining religion as we explore how various systems of belief and practice support or refine our definition of religion.

A Working Definition

You text book proposes this definition of religion.

A person's reliance upon a pivotal value (or set of values) in which the person finds wholeness as an individual and as a person in community.

The authors note that they are dependent upon the prominent sociologist Clifford Geertz.  Typical of the social sciences, Geertz's definition is primarily interested in how religion functions (what it does).  According to Geertz, religion has two functions:

  1. it provides a system of symbols for understanding the nature of reality.

  2. it provides a system of values that demand complete devotion

The textbook develops the idea of a system of values noting that certain values are "pivotal."  Pivotal values are:

  1. are meaningful to the individual (i.e. they are authentic)

  2. include "unrivaled Power or Being." (Why do we not just say "God.")

  3. are values to which all other values are subordinate

In other words, religion provides order and meaning: it makes sense out of the world by ordering all things around the pivotal value(s). The pivotal values are thus: "a unifying power, a center of meaning, a supreme or pivotal value in the life of an individual or group."

Possible critiques of the definition.

    Is it too broad?  I.e. can the definition include such things as Marxism, Sports, etc? What makes something a "quasi religion" rather than a religion?

     It is balanced?  Note that the definition is functionalist.  That is, it tells us what religion does, but it doesn't address  the question of what religion is.

   Does it encourage one to look at religion in its own terms? That is, does it encourage us to look at religion as merely an outsider, or to understand its significance to its adherents?



What Religion Does

This bring us to an important point.  In general, there are two approaches to defining and understanding religion. The functionalist approach describes religion in terms of what it does.  In other words,  the functionalists would define religion in terms of the way it functions in the lives of individuals and communities.  For example, religion may be understood in terms of how it functions to give hope and courage in the face of suffering, death and other difficulties that we may call the "ultimate problems" of life.  The difficulty with the functionalist approach is that it allows too broad a definition of "religion."  Philosophy, technology, psychology, Marxism and nationalism may also function to help people deal with the ultimate problems of existence, but most people would not classify these are religions. Moreover, a definition that focuses exclusively on how a religion functions will tend to be reductionistic. In other words, it may reduce religion to merely an institution which orders society. 
On the other hand, there is the substantive approach to religion. This approach attempt to define religion in terms of "what it is" rather than "what it does." Consequently, the substantive approach focuses on the substance of religion, the "essential core idea or essence that distinguishes religious approach to life from moral or scientific ones."  This understanding significantly  narrows what may be characterized as "religious." The challenge of the substantive approach, however, is to identify precisely the essence of the distinction between religious and non-religious. Those who emphasize the substantive approach suggest that there is an essential, irreducible element within all religions that separate them from everything else - the element of the sacred. In other words, what separates religion from other phenomena is the belief in a realm known as the sacred.

What Religion


  A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it - the element of the sacred.  Eliade   

In reality, an adequate definition of religion probably needs to be both functionalist and substantive.  On the one hand, religion does fulfill certain roles and meets real needs of people and society; that is, it is possible to describe what religion does.  On the other hand, it is necessary to focus the essential features of a religion: core beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.that connect people to the realm of the sacred.  In other words, religions must be understood from its own perspective.  (More about this under the phenomenological method).


Can we study religion?

Your text book raises the question of whether there can be true dialogue between persons with differing pivotal values.  In other words, if you are convinced of the truth of certain values and you have invested energy and intellect in subordinating everything else to those values, can you really understand someone whose pivotal values are entirely different?

And if our goal in studying religion is to understand, can we really even study religion in general and other faith traditions in particular?

In his article "Why study religion," Jacob Neusner puts the question this way: " I have to believe in order to study [religion], or, if I do believe, can I study [religion] at all?" In other words, if I am devoted to certain beliefs and practices, can I really study religions with beliefs and practices that differ from my own?" Can you be faithful to your own beliefs and examine in any kind of objective way what other people believe?