The Definition of Religion

Religion is a broad social phenomenon that has received attention from many disciplines, including anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, and religious studies. Its significance for people varies greatly, but it is generally agreed that it contributes to the moral well-being of individuals and society as a whole, provides a sense of meaning and purpose, enhances family stability and unity, provides social control, fosters psychological and physical health, and may inspire work for social change.

A central debate in this area is whether religion should be defined as a set of beliefs and experiences or as an institution or grouping of social practices. Many definitions are based on the idea that certain features must be present in all religions. These include belief in a supreme power or gods, a concept of afterlife, supernatural beings and powers, a metaphysical order or world view, and the idea of sacred objects or places.

Other definitions are based on the idea that a social genus can exist without all members of that genus displaying all characteristics. For example, it is common today to treat the notion of religion as a taxon that includes all the major world religions but also many other smaller religions.

The functional approach is usually exemplified by Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which focuses on the social function of creating solidarity. A more formal example is Edward Burnett Tylor’s definition of religion in 1871 as the belief in spiritual beings.