The Definition of Religion


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, beliefs and ethics that involves devotion to a supernatural entity, a belief in life after death, and a code of moral conduct. It often includes a sacred text, symbol or place and a group of believers led by a clergy. It is also a way of making sense of the world.

The definition of religion is debated across multiple disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology and psychology. The most common definitions are monothetic, which offer a single feature that is necessary and sufficient to call something a religion, or polythetic, which do not view any particular features as essential or sufficient for the category.

Those who advocate a monothetic definition see religion as an abstract concept that describes social reality rather than a concrete thing. They argue that religion names a set of socially ordained principles of value and a system of values that are shared by most members of a society. It is also a coping mechanism that helps people to deal with the inevitability of their own mortality and the fear of forces beyond human control.

Those who advocate a polythetic definition of religion argue that the notion of religion is too broad and that it excludes things that could be viewed as being religious, such as art, magic and science. They are influenced by the realist argument that it is better to look at what a concept means in practice than to try to define it in terms of its logical properties.