The Definition of Religion


A broad taxon of social formations, Religion is most often used to refer to the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). But it may also encompass more localized forms of life, or even secular practices that are nevertheless characterized by morality, rituals, or social involvement.

The earliest definitions of Religion focused on belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Emile Durkheim’s famous three-sided model is classic in this regard: a religion is whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community (irrespective of whether it involves beliefs in unusual realities).

More recently, scholars have begun to explore alternative ways of defining Religion. One approach, known as the “functionalist” perspective, defines religion as whatever activities unite a particular group of people into a moral community. This approach has its critics, however. For example, de Muckadell (2014) argues that functionalist approaches are flawed because they ignore the power dynamics that structure the relationships between individuals and groups.

In addition, a functionalist approach has the drawback that it overlooks the fact that some religious communities can be characterized by elements of superstition. Indeed, some atheists and skeptics think that the practices of some religions amount to little more than superstition. However, there is growing evidence that the practice of Religion is associated with a number of positive outcomes in individuals, families, and societies. These include improved health, learning, and economic well-being, increased empathy and self-control, and a reduced incidence of social pathologies like out-of-wedlock births, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse.