Three Ways to Define Religion

Religion is a complex, multifaceted, and ever-changing aspect of people’s lives. It involves not only belief and practice, but also a sense of community, morality, ethics, rituals, symbols, and values. It can affect family life, work, education, political participation, health and wellness, and even the ways people think about themselves. It is one of the most important aspects of any culture.

The term “religion” originally referred to an individual’s religious commitments and practices, but it has come to encompass more than this, including attitudes and lifestyles, social relationships, and worldviews. Its meaning has become controversial, and scholars have produced a variety of definitions. Some of these are real or lexical (what it means to say, for example, that something is a religion), while others are abstract or functional (how it relates to a person’s beliefs or behaviors).

For instance, some people define religion by its rituals and ceremonies. They might say that a person is a religion if she or he performs these rituals regularly, believes in god or a higher power, and follows certain ethical guidelines. This type of definition may be useful because it explains how and why religion can influence the behavior of individuals and communities.

Other scholars have taken a more functional approach, saying that religion is the organization and management of a set of values, rituals, and institutions. These can include a belief in a higher power, moral rules and guidelines, a system of divine commandments or prophets, and a cosmological framework or system of order. In addition, these systems can provide people with a sense of identity and community, support and nurture their families, promote personal and spiritual well-being, and inspire them to contribute to the public good.

This view of religion is helpful because it can account for the fact that there are some groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Evangelical Protestants, whose members believe that their religion plays a very important role in their lives. Nevertheless, the percentage of Americans who rate religion as very important has not increased substantially over time.

A third way to think about religion is to use a polythetic definition. This type of definition includes more than one feature in its category, and it is based on the notion of family resemblance suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein. This sort of definition aims to address the fact that a concept such as religion cannot be defined in terms of its essential properties and must be understood by its various crisscrossing and partially overlapping features, much like the family resemblance concepts used to describe things like games or literature.