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Substantive and Functional Definitions of Religion

 If you re-read the list of definitions of religion, you may also observe that the definitions seem to fall into one of two categories. Some define what religion does while others try to describe what religion is. Those definitions that focus on what religion does are classified as functionalist; that is, they seek to explain how religion functions within the life of an individual or society. Livingston cites a definition by sociologist Milton Yinger as primarily a functionalist definition: "Religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life." Another, perhaps better example of a functionalist definition is that of sociologist Emile Durkheim: "Religion is the glue that holds society together." The primary focus of both of these definitions is on what religion does. For example, with Yinger's definition, a system of beliefs and practices that does not function as a means of struggling with ultimate problems of life would not be a religion. Why? Because it does not function the way Yinger believes a religion functions.

 On the other hand, those definitions that primarily focus on what religion is can be described as substantive; that is, they seek to isolate the essence or substance of religion. Livingston cites E.B. Tylor's definition of religion as "belief in Spiritual Beings" as a substantive definition. Another substantive definition from our list is "Belief in invisible superhuman power together with feelings and practices that flow from such a belief." Notice that neither of these definitions really tell us what religion does; rather, they focus only on what religion is.

 As you re-read the list, try to determine to which category each definition should belong.

 


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