What Is Religion?


In the broadest sense, Religion can be defined as people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It may involve the belief in disembodied spirits, cosmological orders or other supernatural beings. Alternatively, it can involve a moral or ethical code, or in a more humanistic form, a set of values that guide one’s life. Often it includes texts regarded as scriptural, and people esteemed to be invested with religious or spiritual authority. It may also include ritualized behavior, and, according to the U.S. survey mentioned above, there is a strong correlation between what people say is important to them and what they actually do on a day-to-day basis.

In sociology, it is common today to take a functional approach to Religion, such as Durkheim’s definition of it as whatever serves to create solidarity, or Tillich’s definition as what organizes a person’s values. This functional view treats it as a social institution that changes within and across cultures, although at a slower pace than some other institutions such as economics.

In the past, there was a more substantive, or monistic, approach to Religion, which treated it as a single-minded entity that could be defined by a number of features, most importantly faith. This approach, however, has been criticized as being too narrow and limiting. It would be difficult to correct a stipulative definition of Religion, which is an assumption that a certain meaning must be assigned to the term. For instance, an example of a problematic stipulative definition would be “ice-skating while singing”. De Muckadell (2014) argues that one cannot critique a stipulative definition because it forces scholars to simply accept what is specified and not challenge it.