The Definition of Religion


Religion is a social taxon that includes many diverse practices. The resulting diversity has prompted the development of “polythetic” approaches to this phenomenon that abandon the classical view that each instance of something must have a defining property that distinguishes it from other instances. These polythetic approaches also raise the question of whether or not a concept can be understood to have a prototype structure.

Most textbooks take a standard date and doctrine approach to this topic, but such an approach does not adequately prepare students for participation in today’s multicultural society. Teachers should seek resources that provide descriptions of the complexities and nuances of modern-day religious beliefs and practices; first-person accounts about what it’s like to live as a member of a particular religion; and detailed, fact-based analyses of current events.

The definition of religion that has been most widely used in academic literature is a functional one, with Durkheim’s (1906) emphasis on the social function of creating solidarity and Paul Tillich’s (1957) focus on its axiological role as providing orientation for life. Both of these functional definitions, however, treat religion as pan-human.

A less common functional definition treats religion as the “something that binds” all people together. This version of the definition is not necessarily pan-human, and there is a strong case that it is an essentialist view of the nature of religion. These essentialist views are also problematic in that they ignore the fact that there are a number of religions that do not have any belief in supernatural beings or explicit metaphysics.

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