Functional Definitions of Religion

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Religion is a broad umbrella term for a variety of beliefs and practices. Historically, scholars have tried to categorize religions in order to understand how they are similar and different. However, the academic study of religions has been plagued by disagreement about how to define and distinguish one from another.

The first signpost on the road to understanding religion came from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who believed that all humans have a longing for something greater than themselves. Later, the German philosopher Friedrich Feuerbach developed a theory of religion as a projection of man’s aspirations. This view was taken up by many thinkers, including Marx, Freud, and Karl Barth.

Increasingly, researchers are turning to functional definitions of religion, which drop the substantive element and focus on the roles that religions can play in society. One of the pioneers in this field was American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined religion as “a system of symbols that functions to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic.”

Many religious practices promote good behavior and encourage morality. In addition, practicing religion can help reduce anxiety and stabilize emotional variability. This may be due to the belief that there is a higher power watching over us and the knowledge that we are not alone in this world. A new study from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University published in Perspectives in Psychological Science found that religiosity is associated with a number of positive psychological outcomes.