The Meaning of Religion

Religion is an umbrella term for a wide variety of human practices. Among these are belief in the existence of a divine being or spirit world, worshipping and honoring supernatural powers and characters, and ritual acts performed to express devotion. Religions have always been a major force shaping culture and knowledge. They have influenced the arts, music and literature. They have also been a source of liberation and social change as well as an instrument of coercion and oppression.

Many scholars have wrestled with the task of defining religion. Unfortunately, the definitions offered by ordinary language are ill-fitting and tend to conflate religion with particular political or ideological views and beliefs.

One group of scholars, often associated with the history of religions school of thought, has developed what are called “monothetic” definitions of religion. These define the concept by asserting that any activity that entails an active commitment to a particular set of beliefs is a religion. A problem with this approach is that it ignores many important aspects of religious life such as devotion to a cause, ritual performances and material objects.

Other scholars have taken a different approach. They have analyzed what makes a practice religious in functional terms. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever system of moral codes unite a number of people into a single moral community—whether or not these practices involve belief in unique realities. A more recent and important approach has been to develop a family-resemblance concept for religion. In this approach, the definition is based on a list of traits that are believed to be essential to religion. Then the scholars try to identify practices that have a sufficient number of these characteristics. This approach is sometimes referred to as polythetic.

It should be emphasized that none of these approaches has any claim to being definitive. The debate about the meaning of religion is a long-standing one that continues to affect how the concept is used and understood.

Nevertheless, the arguments that are advanced in support of each of these approaches have value and relevance. Those who advocate polythetic definitions have a good point: It is inherently difficult to pin down exactly what makes something a religion. But the fact that there is a range of possibilities suggests that the concept has at least some sort of structure and that it is useful for classifying cultural phenomena. Furthermore, treating the concept of religion as a taxon allows scholars to study its properties in much the same way that a scientist might analyze the characteristics of bacteria or other types of organisms. This approach has led to surprising discoveries about the way that the different characteristics of a category co-appear. It is these findings that are a major contribution of the modern study of religion.