What Is Religion?


Religion is one of the broadest social categories, covering a huge range of activities and ideas. As a result, it has been difficult to define. This has created a problem for researchers who study the phenomenon. The scholarly field that deals with religion is a cross-disciplinary one, with scholars from anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and most recently cognitive science all tackling the question of what religion is. The wide-ranging nature of what is called’religion’ also raises philosophical issues, questions that also are raised by other abstract concepts that sort cultural types (such as “literature”, “democracy” or even the term “culture” itself).

There have been two basic approaches to this question. The first has been the substantive definition of religion. This was developed in the 19th century by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, who defined religion as a system of symbols that “establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality that they appear uniquely realistic” (1972:90).

Sociological functional definitions of religion have also been formulated. These, like the substantive definition, have been traced back to Emile Durkheim’s (see Durkheim, Emile ) concept of religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices that unites people into a moral community. However, critics have argued that functional definitions of religion are flawed because they lack an understanding of the social process through which a belief system develops and functions, thereby missing the vital point of why a particular belief system is considered’religious’.