Religion is an institution or set of beliefs that are claimed to answer life’s ultimate questions—such as the purpose of human existence and what happens after death. It also involves moral codes that impose obligations on believers, such as avoiding sexual impropriety or showing respect to the dead. Religions have had a profound influence on human history, and they continue to shape culture in the present. Yet defining what is meant by “religion” is difficult, with definitions ranging from fuzzy and broad to narrow and clear. Defining the concept is an important step in any study of religion, but it also poses problems, especially for academics who must be sure that the concepts they use are reliable and valid.
The word “religion” is derived from the Latin term religio, which means “scrupulousness,” “abundance of devotion,” or “faithfulness.” The definition that best captures this meaning is that religion is an intensely abiding belief and feeling of loyalty to a higher power. This feeling of awe and devotion is expressed through rituals that may include crying, laughing, chanting, trancelike conditions, a sense of oneness with others in the group, and other emotional and psychological states.
In the nineteenth century, three social theorists attempted to understand the relationship between religion and society: Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Each of them viewed religion in different ways. For Durkheim, religion was a way to organize and reinforce social solidarity. Marx believed that religious belief reflected and perpetuated capitalism’s inequality. Weber, in contrast, saw religion as a source of moral and spiritual comfort for the working classes.
More recently, scholars have used both functional and structural definitions to sort out what is meant by “religion.” Functional approaches rely on the idea that there are certain social functions that can be served by religion and that people can evaluate those benefits in terms of the role played by a particular religion in their lives. For example, Edward Tylor uses the idea of belief in spiritual beings as a minimal definition for religion and Paul Tillich uses the idea that what is most important to an individual’s life can serve as a useful criterion for distinguishing between religion and non-religion.
Whether functional or structural, all these definitions face the problem that any given culture can have more than one religion. This makes it difficult for scholars to decide what should be included in a definition of religion, as the category could include both practices and beliefs that are common to more than one culture. This raises the question of whether or not it is possible to have a socially meaningful definition for religion at all. Some have suggested proceeding with study without attempting to define the concept, in the hopes that a clearer understanding of the phenomenon will emerge over time. Others believe that a precise definition is essential to the scientific study of religion and that definitions should be crafted only after thorough research has been conducted.