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What is 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. If that isn't strange enough, there is also some disagreement about exactly how one should study religion. In this first unit, we will begin by considering both the challenges of defining and studying religion. We will learn about two major categories of definitions for religion.


Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter you will be able to answer the following questions with at least a 70% accuracy:


Explain the challenge of adequately defining religion

Identify definitions of religion as substantive or functional.

Explain why certain definitions of religion are too broad or too narrow.

Define the following terms:

substantive definition

functional definition

genetic fallacy

Describe the contribution of the following individuals to the study of religion:

Sigmund Freud

Emile Durkheim

Karl Marx


What is Religion?


The difficulty in defining religion seems to lie in the nature of religion itself. First, there is the breadth of those phenomena we think of as "religion." Simply put there is a staggering variety of objects, beliefs, teachings, times, and activities that can in some way be considered "religious." How can one definition cover all of these?

Second, religion itself is complex. One scholar has noted, "religion is a complex phenomenon, related to a variety of aspects of existence." Thus, any definition of religion "must take into account the scope of the religion's impact on human thought, feeling, and action. Individual and social needs must be considered as must he expression and/or recognition of values." In other words, for any definition of religion to be acceptable, it must deal with belief, doctrine, experiences, actions, rituals, social identity and individual needs.

Not surprisingly, a variety of definitions have been proposed for "religion." The list below is a small sample of the definitions given to religion. As you read each definition, consider whether or not you believe that definition is adequate.


Religion is…
(Some Definitions of Religion)

  1. The human search for ultimate meaning in life. A quest for and response to ultimacy.
  2. The quest for the values of the ideal life and for the means of achieving them, including a world view that relates this quest to the surrounding universe.
  3. "A set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate condition of his existence." (Robert Bellah)
  4. A specific system of belief in God, doctrines, etc. God's relation to humanity and the universe.
  5. A set of rituals which transform the state of man. Rituals which are rationalized and confirmed by sacred myths. A supernatural power behind the ritual brings the transformation.
  6. The feeling of absolute dependence. A sense and taste for the infinite. (F. Schleiermacher)
  7. An exploration in self-discovery.
  8. "What an individual does with his solitariness" (Alfred North Whitehead)
  9. "A person's ultimate concern" (Paul Tillich)
  10. "A system of beliefs and practices directed to the ultimate concern of society."
  11. A personalized set or institutional system of beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural. (Supernatural: An order of existence beyond human experience and observation)
  12. Belief in invisible superhuman power together with feelings and practices that flow from such a belief.
  13. Humanity encountering what is authentically real and unconditionally important.
  14. "[The seeking] of divine truth, exploring who we are, why we're here, and how we should live." (Joel Beversluis, ed., Sourcebook of the world's Religions)
  15. Ways of interpreting life and ways of living.
  16. Belief about reality and living in accord with that belief.
  17. The search for the "more" of life; questioning, seeking truth.
  18. The ultimate sense that people give to their existence.
  19. The betterment of yourself and the betterment of the world you live in.
  20. A set of beliefs and practices designed to improve the nature of oneself.
  21. A means to ultimate transformation.
  22. A way to understand this experience that we call "life"
  23. Religion is the journey of life whereupon individuals attempt to achieve the highest possible good by adjusting their lives to the strongest and most magnificent power in the universe.
  24. A set of beliefs and practices which serve to subordinate us to something superior or holy in order to justify the events that control our lives 
  25. A person's journey within themselves and within society on a search for truth, love, community, and "holy connection".




Fallacies in Defining Religion

From the sample of definitions for religion, it is possible to identify some common fallacies in the attempt to define religion. In particular, we can see that definitions can be too broad, too narrow, or are not really definitions at all.

First, in their attempt to be comprehensive a number of definitions are too general. For example, one definition states that religion is "a system of beliefs and practices directed to the ultimate concern of society." This definition is so general that it raises the possibility that such things as economic systems or political systems may be classified as religion. What if a society perceives material gain to be its "ultimate concern?" Is materialism a religion. What about sports? Obviously, definitions that are too general (generic) may not be very useful; in fact, they may make confuse the issue even more.

Second, some devinions are too specific or limiting. If one defines religion as "a specific system of belief in God" one has accepted a very narrow view that excludes what most people would recognize as "religion." There are many systems generally considered to be "religions" that do not fit with this definition. For example, some traditions that are generally recognizes as a religion do not hold to a belief in a god. At the very least, some traditions, such as Theravada Buddhism, believe that while gods or a God may exist, the belief in that god or Gods is not of ultimate importance. Others, such as Daoism, believe in an impersonal force rather than a personal God.

A final mistake that has been made by individuals attempting to define religion can be classified as the genetic fallacy. This fallacy confuses theories of origin of religion with the definition of religion. The most obvious examples of the genetic fallacy regarding religion may be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Freud (the father of modern psychoanalyis) concluded that religion is nothing more than "wish fulfillment" resulting from what can only be called a neurosis. Even if one agrees with Freud's assessment of religion, it is clear that Freud has only described the origin or cause of religion. His assessment does not do much to advance a definition of religion.

The same can be said about Karl Marx. Marx believed that religion originated as an invention by society to control or pacify people. On the one hand, it provides authority to the ruling classes and allowed them to control and exploit the working class. On the other hand, religion provides the oppressed with hope for a better life after the difficulties of this life. As a result, the oppressed are more content and less likely to demand more in this life. Again, there may be some truth in Marx's analysis (think of how religion is used to control and manipulate people), but he still does not explain what religion is. This confusion of the origin of religion with its definition is an example of the genetic fallacy.



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.


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.


Why Study Religion?

One can easily understand the need to study a discipline that will be used for one's whole life (such as speech, math, or English). Studying to acquire skills necessary for employment also needs no justification. But why should we take time to study religion from an academic point of view? Livingston lists at least five possible justifications for the academic study of religion:


To understand what it means to be human. Since religion characterizes all societies, understanding the nature of religion helps us understand humanity.

To overcome our ignorance. We all have a limited world view that centers on our own group or nation. Because of this ethnocentric perspective we often are unaware of the different perspectives other societies may have. Studying the religious values and experiences of other groups exposes us to different world views.

To understand our own culture. Religion has been and continues to be a powerful influence in shaping the culture of the United States. To understand that influence is to better understand the American experience.

To achieve a global perspective and understanding of the nature of the issues and conflicts throughout the world. The Protestant-Catholic struggle in Northern Ireland, as well as the Arab-Israeli and India-Pakistan conflicts have roots in the clash of culture and religion. An understanding of religion equates to a better understanding of of these conflicts.

To help us formulate our own beliefs or philosophy of life. If the "unexamined life is not worth living" then the unexamined faith is not worth holding. Studying religion helps individuals formulate their own questions of faith and to confront and come to terms with their own beliefs.