The Definition of Religion

Religious faith is an important part of the lives of more than 80 percent of the world’s population. Although scholars can’t agree on a definition of religion, many describe it as a system of beliefs and practices that include worshipping a supreme power, often referred to as God. Other aspects of religion may include praying, fasting, attending services, reading Scripture, and embracing morality.

In the past, most scholars have used one of three basic approaches to defining religion: substantive, functional, or social. Substantive definitions consider whether a phenomenon displays a unique set of features that distinguish it from other phenomena. For example, James G. Frazer said that religion consists of belief in powers above and beyond man as well as attempts to please or propitiate these higher powers. Functional definitions, like those of Emile Durkheim and Rodney Needham, focus on what a form of life does or how it influences people’s lives.

Anthropologists have proposed that primitive religions developed out of humans’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as weather and pregnancy and birth, or increase their success in hunting. Early attempts to do so included magic, such as painting pictures of animals on cave walls, and supplication, or appeals to spirits.

Over the past several decades, scholars have shifted their perspectives on the definition of religion. Some have viewed it as a social genus, present in all cultures, while others have suggested that the definition is a construct of culture.