The Definition of Religion


A religion is a form of life that unites people in pursuit of a shared goal or purpose. Each religion has its own tenets and beliefs but, at the core, they are all similar in that they offer guidance for living one’s life. Despite the different tenets, all religions share certain common characteristics, including worship of a higher power, devotion to a deity, and community support.

There has been renewed interest in the question of whether or not there is a “religion essence” which distinguishes the concept of religion from other social constructs. Those who take this position believe that it should be possible to develop a scientific theory that causally explains why the various experiences, beliefs, and behaviors associated with religion are reliably found together, and that such an explanation will be based on biological or neurological mechanisms.

This view of the definition of religion is criticized by those who see it as a way to impose a Western religious perspective on other cultures, and argue that it fails to consider faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism. These critics prefer a definition of religion that is functional rather than substantive, and that recognizes the contributions of institutions and disciplinary practices to a sense of moral community, without requiring belief in unusual realities.

This approach to the definition of religion is also criticized by those who see it as relegating the concept of religion to the status of a social construct, and advocate instead for a more biological or functional understanding of the phenomenon. A common strategy is to array a master list of “religion-making” features and claim that, if a phenomena has a large enough number of these, it counts as religion.

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