What is Religion?


Religion is a category of human activity that manifests itself in various ways. Historically scholars have sought to find some stable and objective definition for this phenomenon. Substantive definitions are based on an assumption that some features are distinctive and that these distinguish religion from other forms of human behavior. Examples of such definitions include the belief in a supreme being, a belief in life after death, and idolatry. These types of definitions have been critiqued by reflexive scholars, who point out that the taxon was artificially created to impose an order on societies, and that the term itself is a tool that has already been used to discriminate against certain groups of people (Possamai 2018).

In contrast, functionalist definitions drop the substantive element. Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever set of practices unites a group into a moral community, and this definition was later extended by Charles Wach to include the experience of an ultimate reality as a religious response (Wach 1950). More recently some scholars have sought to define religion as a social construct. This view has been criticised by realists who argue that the concept is too anthropocentric and ignores the influence of external forces, and also that it is based on assumptions that are Christian and modern.

Alternatively, interpretivist sociologists have argued that there are too many different types of religion to come up with one single definition, and that what is interesting about religion is the process by which beliefs become recognised as religion. This has led to the idea of a “neo-Reformation” that encompasses a number of religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but excludes some versions of Buddhism and Jainism (see Philosophy and Jainism).