How Should Religion Be Defined?


Religion is a social phenomenon that has never been fully explained or understood. Despite this fact, scholars continue to grapple with the question of how it should be defined and studied. Some have tried to define religion in a way that is objective and verifiable, for example, by describing the beliefs or practices that constitute it. Others have used more subjective, hermeneutical categories to explore the nature of religion, such as Hans Jonas’ intelligent use of the modern existentialist concept of Geworfenheit in his study of Gnosticism or Rudolf Otto’s category of the holy. These definitions are not objective or verifiable, but they do make it possible to compare and contrast different religions.

The majority of definitions have been functional rather than objective and verifiable, and they can be traced back to Emile Durkheim’s early work on sociological forms where he defines religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unite individuals into one moral community and have as their goal the control of life. The idea behind this type of definition is that the concept of religion has always existed without being formally conceptualized, and that any form of social organization can be treated as religious if it fulfills this function (for an essay on this point see Runciman 1974).

Other scholars have taken this argument even further, arguing that because religion names a social genus, its definition should be pan-human rather than based on specific beliefs. This approach is criticized on the grounds that it tends to treat all religions as equally likely to be true or false and ignores the differences between religions.

Posted in: Gambling