The Definition of Religion


More than 80 percent of the world’s population subscribes to some form of religion. However, despite its prevalence in human history, there is no consensus on what the term “religion” actually means. The debate reaches across many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and even cognitive science. The definition of religion is an important topic because it influences the perspectives and approaches scholars use to study it.

One major debate concerns the question of whether the concept of religion names a real thing or is simply a social construct. Some scholars, like Clifford Geertz, have emphasized that religion is something that exists only as a social phenomenon. Other scholars, like Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim, have argued that it is a necessary component of any society.

While scholars can disagree about the existence of religion as a phenomenon, most agree that it is an important part of people’s lives. Sociological perspectives on religion aim to understand the functions it serves, the problems it can reinforce and perpetuate, and the impact it has on our daily lives.

The functional approach to religion is exemplified by Emile Durkheim, who defined it as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not that community believes in any unusual realities). This contrasts with the substantive definition of religion used by anthropologists like Rodney Needham, who defines it as beliefs and behaviors that are intended to influence one’s behavior, as well as philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerbach, who define it as belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.