The Definition of Religion

Religion is a social genus that encompasses a wide range of ideas, practices, and beliefs. Some of these include the worship of gods and spirits, the practice of rites or ritual behaviors to mark important life events, the pursuit of spiritual growth, and the adherence to moral codes. Religions also vary in their doctrines, which include stories about the origins and interactions of gods or goddesses and their humans devotees.

One of the most influential definitions of religion was drafted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) in 1973. Geertz’s definition focuses on the way in which religions establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that they come to seem uniquely realistic.

This type of phenomenological approach can be contrasted with another way of understanding religion, which is to look at its effects on people’s lives and how they change over time. This view of religion has been embraced by a number of philosophers, including Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), Simone Weil (1909-1943), and Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Some scholars believe that focusing on effects relegates the study of religion to the realm of sociology or theology and neglects the more sophisticated contributions of Continental philosophy, such as those made by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Luce Irigaray. Others point out that to define religion in terms of mental states is a Protestant bias and that we should shift attention from hidden subjective states to visible institutional structures.