How Religion Is Defined


Religion is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. It has been defined by scholars in many different ways. Some see it as a system of beliefs and ritual behavior, while others treat the term as a sociological construct or a set of social functions. Still others focus on psychological and philosophical aspects of the concept. Whether the definition is substantive or functional, it must be recognized that a particular definition may have political implications.

Many people find comfort in religion, and it seems to help them deal with life’s challenges. Research suggests that it can improve health, learning, and economic well-being, as well as self-control, compassion, and empathy. The practice of religion is associated with lower rates of divorce, drug and alcohol use, crime, and mental disorders. It is also beneficial for society because it helps prevent suicide, reduces out-of-wedlock births, and promotes moral values such as honesty, fairness, tolerance, and sacrifice.

Psychological approaches to defining religion examine the nature of religious beliefs and experiences. These include the work of Sigmund Freud (Oedipus Complex, Illusion), Carl Jung (Universal archetypes), Erich Fromm (Fear of Death), William James (Personal Religion and Immature Religion), Gordon Allport (Religious Experience, Pragmatism), and Rudolf Otto (Mystical experiences).

Sociological functional approaches to defining religion are generally traced to Emile Durkheim, who wrote that any system of beliefs and practices that function as a cohesive force for morality may be considered a religion. This approach was later adapted by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.