Religion – A Hotbed of Definitional Controversy


Religion is a term that has been a hotbed of definitional controversy. Some scholars warn that definitions can drive theories and determine conclusions, and that it is best to simply proceed with the study of religion and fashion definitions only afterward (Harrison 1912, Weber 1922). As new religions and revitalization movements proliferate in modern societies, the issue of how to define religion takes on renewed importance. The term is interpreted broadly to encompass beliefs that are not traditional, organized in a formal church or sect, or that appear illogical or unreasonable to others. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act defines religion as any activity that is a “religious practice” or belief, and the law makes clear that such activities can be subject to legal protections.

Scholars have offered both substantive and functional definitions of religion. Durkheim’s earlier, formal definition was a precursor to his later functional approach, and Paul Tillich based his on the axiological function of providing orientation in life. Functional approaches tend to treat religion as a universal human phenomenon. It is important to recognize, however, that there are people who have never believed in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders, and that religion can be present in more than one culture without being a universal feature of humanity.

Substantive definitions posit that religion involves the belief in ultimate meaning, in some form or other, and that such meaning can be attained through a spiritual connection with God. Some researchers have criticized this approach, noting that it ignores the role of beliefs and other mental states in the formation of religious behavior. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that religious participation benefits physical health, psychological well-being, learning, moral behaviors, family functioning, and economic success, as well as social cohesion and community cohesiveness. It even appears to increase longevity.

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