The term religion is used to describe beliefs, behaviors, and experiences that have a spiritual or supernatural element. It is also used to refer to certain writings, persons, and places, such as scriptures, myths, and traditions. Nevertheless, definitions of religion can be contentious and controversies over the concept are ongoing. There has been a trend among scholars over the last forty years or so to pull back and examine assumptions baked into the concept of religion as a social reality. Some have even argued that the way in which a person defines what is religious reveals how they view society.
Some approaches to definition are formal while others are functional. In a functional approach, the focus is on how something functions in a society, with its defining characteristics a secondary factor. Emile Durkheim’s early definition of religion in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) fits this category. Durkheim viewed religion as a coordinating and unifying force in society. He also viewed it as an antidote to fear, insanity, and morbidity.
In this view, it is not so much the observable phenomena of rituals, prayers, and devotion as it is the invisible structure that lies behind them that defines religion. Other writers have taken a functional approach, such as Paul Tillich who defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes one’s values (whether or not the concerns involve belief in unusual realities).
A formal strategy looks for a pattern in known examples. For example, Zeldin (1969) sees a narrative structure of a fall from and return to an ideal state that exists in world religions. Other authors, such as Lemert (1975) and Blasi (1980), use a structural analysis of the discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a supraempirical, cosmic-level order to define religion.
Defining religion can be challenging, with some definitions threatening to drive theories and determine conclusions (Possamai 2018). For example, the word “religion” has so many possible meanings that it is easy to use it to mean anything from a particular culture’s philosophies or practices to a person’s feelings. Some scholars therefore argue that there is no such thing as a true religion, while other scholars reject this position.
Still, the question of how to define religion is important, especially as new religious movements and revitalization initiatives emerge. People often look to the Bible or other holy texts to find the answers they need. Other times they seek support from friends or family members. They may also turn to sports teams or other clubs for comfort during difficult times. Whatever the case, they all hope to find a path to happiness and fulfillment. While the definition of religion can be controversial, it is vital for understanding how religions function in societies worldwide.