How Religion Is Defined


Religion is a complex concept and can be defined in many ways. Some definitions are broad, such as Paul Tillich’s assertion that religion is anything that deals with “ultimate concern.” Others are narrow, such as those that limit the term to belief in one God or that define it only as a system of organized faiths. Still others are functional, describing a role that religion plays in a particular society.

As a social concept, Religion is a fluid category, whose senses shift as people use it. It is a contested notion because of its complexity and ambiguity. People use it in different ways and interpret its meanings according to their own beliefs and values. This has led to numerous scholarly debates over what it means to be religious. These debates fall into two broad categories: realist and functionalist approaches to the concept.

A realist approach defines Religion in terms of a belief in some kind of supernatural or spiritual reality. This view has dominated academic study of religion for much of the twentieth century. It is clear, however, that this definition is not adequate to capture all that is significant about religion. For example, it excludes people who do not believe in a supreme deity but who practice rituals and have other meaningful beliefs. It also fails to account for the fact that some people believe in multiple Gods or that there are other spiritual forces in the universe.

In the twentieth century, a number of scholars began to offer alternatives to this realist definition. These alternative definitions are known as “functionalist” because they describe the distinctive role that a religion plays in a society rather than the presence of some kind of supernatural or spiritual reality. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion, for example, turns on the function that it serves to bind people together into a moral community (whether or not this unity involves belief in any unusual realities).

Both realist and functionalist definitions suffer from a major problem. They impose an ahistorical essence on an evolving social category that has no natural essence. They are also prone to ethnocentrism. For example, Durkheim’s definition reflects his assumption that people in western societies have a prototypical religion.

For this reason, many scholars have moved away from realist and functionalist definitions of Religion in favor of a dyadic model. This model, proposed by William Alston, describes the dyadic relationships among a religion’s characteristics: its beliefs, rituals, and social organization. The dyadic model makes it possible to critique stipulative definitions of Religion by showing how they fail to adequately capture important aspects of religion. It also enables scholars to develop a more accurate measure of what is actually being described when they describe religion. By this method, for example, they can show that a stipulative definition of religion like “ice-skating while singing” does not describe any religion.