The Definition of Religion


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It includes a wide variety of beliefs and practices that differ from culture to culture, but that all have in common a set of emotional, social, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions. It is also a way of dealing with ultimate concerns about life and death.

One of the most influential definitions of religion was crafted by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures. His approach was based on the concept of a “family tree” whereby all phenomena that fit a certain category or “family” of behaviors share similar traits and, thus, are part of that category or family. Those who use the term religion must therefore show how any particular phenomenon demonstrates these shared traits to be considered a religion. If it does not do so, it might be called magic or sorcery or a cult and not a religion at all.

Other anthropologists have taken different approaches to the idea of a definition for religion. Emile Durkheim, for example, focused on the social function of religion and how it binds people together in a society. Another functional approach to the concept was proposed by Paul Tillich who defined it as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not this concern involves belief in any unusual realities.

Recently scholars have begun to move away from a strict focus on monothetic, or single-criterion, definitions of religion and toward a more polythetic approach. These researchers suggest that if we want to understand the diverse range of religious practices, then we must consider all aspects of a culture including its cultural norms, moral codes and economic systems.

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