Definition of Religion


Religion is a social structure, a system of beliefs and practices that unifies people into likeminded communities. It gives its members a common object of devotion and, in many cases, also a moral code to live by. It often deals with matters of the supernatural and spiritual, about forces beyond the control of human beings. Its goals may be proximate, as in the development of a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of life; or ultimate, as in the afterlife (which may be a rebirth in a better world or the eventual destruction and re-creation of the universe).

Scholars have offered many different definitions of religion. Some, like Emile Durkheim, emphasize its social function of fostering solidarity; others, such as Paul Tillich, focus on its axiological function of giving meaning to life. A more recent approach draws on the concept of a social kind, developed by Ninian Smart and Hugh McLeod; this includes three dimensions that have long been implicit in religious studies: belief, identity, and value-commitment. A fourth dimension, community, has been suggested to complement this.

A number of scholars have criticised substantive definitions of religion, arguing that they are too narrow in the sense that they consider only those faith traditions that believe in spirits or gods; they exclude some forms of Buddhism and Jainism, which are nontheistic, for example. Other scholars have taken a more reflexive approach, looking at the ways that definitions of religion are constructed; this has helped to highlight the social nature of the concept and how its sense shifts over time.