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A Working Definition of Religion

 Any definition that is exclusively functionalist or substantive is probably inadequate. An accurate definition of religion should tell what religion is as well as what religion does. In fact, Livingston's definition seems to encompass both what religion is and what religion does:

 "Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power."

This definition is substantive in that it tells what religion "is": a system of activities and beliefs associated with something of sacred value. It also suggest that religion does something: it has the power to transform. A balance of functionalist and substantive understandings of religion is necessary to provide a comprehensive definition of religion.

 Analyzing the definition further, we begin to see that our definition also provides a clue as to what we will be studying as we try to understand religion:


A. System of Activities: Religious activities include rituals, worship, prayer, sacrifice, pilgrimages, eating, fasting, meditation, etc.

B. System of beliefs: Religious beliefs include doctrines, teachings, affirmations, creeds, interpretations, traditions, ethics, scriptures, stories, etc. These are beliefs about the way things are - one's world view.

C. That which is perceived to be of sacred value: This can include people, objects, times, places, spirits, gods, groups, scriptures, stories, etc. Notice that we are not making a judgment as to whether something really has sacred value. The point is that the adherents of a particular religion perceive it to be of sacred value; the task of the scholar of religion is to understand why that is the case.

D. Transforming power: This is the functionalist part of the definition: That which is sacred transforms one's life: creates meanings, shapes one's world's view, conduct and attitudes. A study of religion must include a study of the difference religious beliefs and practices make in the life of the believer.


If you are thinking critically, you probably have formulated at least one question about Livingston's definition. What does he mean by the term "sacred?" This concept seems to hold the clue about what makes religion different from any other set of beliefs and values. Keep that thought in mind! We will return to it in the next unit, and it will form the basis for much of our study of religion.


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