How Should Religion Be Defined?
Historically, the concept religion has been defined as a set of beliefs and ritual behavior, or a social organization that combines both of these elements. For many scholars, this taxonomy has served a useful purpose in the comparative study of different religions. However, the very act of positing this taxonomy raises questions about the legitimacy and utility of the term. The first of these is whether the notion of “religion” should be viewed as an essentialist one that has sufficient and necessary properties to justify its existence, or as a more modest and analytically encompassing concept that merely sorting practices into a common category by their crisscrossing and partially overlapping features, similar to how the term “game” functions for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types.
Some functional definitions take a broad approach and include belief in supernatural beings as part of the definition, while others are narrower and focus on specific faith traditions. For example, Clifford Geertz argues that religion is the worldview or ethos that underlies a culture’s values and beliefs. This view is often criticized as Eurocentric and relativist, because it fails to acknowledge that different cultures have different worldviews and beliefs, even if the religions themselves are largely identical in terms of their practice.
Other functional definitions, like the one proposed by Paul Tillich, are based on a more psychological or philosophical approach to religion. They argue that the function of religion is to organize and structure people’s lives, but also that it provides meaning and value, reinforces group unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for social change.