The Definition of Religion

Religion addresses fundamental questions that science cannot answer, such as the meaning of life and what happens after death. It provides a moral framework for a large segment of the population and is a major force in the development of art, literature, science and technology. It also plays an important role in addressing social problems such as suicide, drug abuse, and out-of-wedlock births. In addition, regular religious practice helps poor persons move out of poverty and promotes greater family and marital stability.

Historically, most of the definitions of religion have been “monothetic”, operating on the classical view that all instances accurately defined by a concept will share a defining property that places them in that category. Recently, however, a number of scholars have adopted “polythetic” approaches to the study of Religion.

Functionalism defines religion as a system of beliefs and practices that (1) claims to have ultimate answers to human questions, (2) serves a stabilizing function in society and (3) provides socialization through its ritualized behavior. Using a mnemonic device, this approach is sometimes called the three Cs: the true, the beautiful and the good.

Anthropologists have often used a substantive definition of religion, seeking to describe belief systems that claim to provide ultimate answers to fundamental human questions. Such a definition differs from functionalist ones in that it rejects Tylor’s image of a passive human being, arguing instead that humans define themselves as religious through their activities and attitudes.

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