Defining Religion

Religious References on the Definition of Religion

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Although people usually go to dictionaries first when they need a definition, specialized reference works can have more comprehensive and complete definitions - if for no other reason, than because of the greater space. These definitions can reflect greater bias, too, depending on the author and the audience that it is written for.

Global Philosophy of Religion, by Joseph Runzo

Genuine religion is fundamentally a search for meaning beyond materialism. ...A World Religious tradition is a set of symbols and rituals, myths and stories, concepts and truth-claims, which a historical community believes gives ultimate meaning to life, via its connection to a Transcendent beyond the natural order.

This definition starts off as “essentialist,” asserting that the essential characteristic of a religious belief system is the “search for meaning beyond materialism” — if true, however, it would include a multitude of personal beliefs which would never normally be classified as religious. A person who simply helps out in a soup kitchen would be described as practicing their religion, and it isn’t helpful to classify that as being the same sort of activity as a Catholic Mass. Nevertheless, the rest of the definition which describes “world religious traditions” is helpful because it describes the variety of things which make up a religion: myths, stories, truth-claims, rituals, and more.

The Handy Religion Answer Book, by John Renard

In its broadest sense, the term “religion” means adherence to a set of beliefs or teachings about the deepest and most elusive of life’s mysteries.

This is a very short definition — and, in many ways, it isn’t very helpful.

What is meant by the “most elusive of life’s mysteries?” If we accept the assumptions of many existing religious traditions, the answer may be obvious — but that is a circular path to take. If we make no assumptions and are trying to start from scratch, then the answer is unclear. Are astrophysicists practicing a “religion” because they are investigating the “elusive mysteries” of the nature of the universe?

Are neurobiologists practicing a “religion” because they are investigating the very nature of human memories, human thought, and our human nature?

Religion for Dummies, by Rabbi Marc Gellman & Monsignor Thomas Hartman

A religion is a belief in divine (superhuman or spiritual) being(s) and the practices (rituals) and the moral code (ethics) that result from that belief. Beliefs give religion its mind, rituals give religion its shape, and ethics give religion its heart.

This definition does a decent job of using few words to encompass many aspects of religious belief systems without unnecessarily narrowing the scope of religion. For example, while belief in the “divine” is given a prominent position, that concept is broadened to include superhuman and spiritual beings rather than simply gods. It is still a bit narrow because this would exclude many Buddhists, but it is still better than what you will find in many sources. This definition also makes a point of listing features typical with religions, like rituals and moral codes. Many belief systems may have one or the other, but few non-religions will have both.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions

A definition that has received reasonable acceptance among scholars is as follows: religion is a system of communal beliefs and practices relative to superhuman beings.

This definition is that it doesn’t focus on the narrow characteristic of believing in God. The “superhuman beings” can refer to a single god, many gods, spirits, ancestors, or many other powerful beings which rise above mundane humans. It also isn’t so vague as to refer simply to a worldview, but it describes communal and collective nature which characterizes many religious systems.

This is a good definition because it includes Christianity and Hinduism while excluding Marxism and Baseball, but it lacks any reference to the psychological aspects of religious beliefs and the possibility non-supernaturalistic religion.

An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm

  1. A religion is a set of meanings and behaviors having reference to individuals who are or were or could be religious. ...To be religious is to effect in (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern.

    This is an “essentialist” definition of religion because it defines religion based upon some “essential” characteristic: some “serious and ulterior concern.” Unfortunately, it is vague and unhelpful because it either refers to nothing much at all or just about everything. In either case, religion would become a useless classification.

    The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, by Allan G. Johnson

    In general, religion is a social arrangement designed to provide a shared, collective say of dealing with the unknown and unknowable aspects of human life, death and existence, and the difficult dilemmas that arise in the process of making moral decisions. As such, religion not only provides responses to enduring human problems and questions but also forms a basis for social cohesion and solidarity.

    Because this is a sociology reference work, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the definition of religion emphasizes the social aspects of religions. Psychological and experiential aspects are ignored completely, which is why this definition is of only limited use. The fact that this is an appropriate definition in sociology reveals that the common assumption of religion being primarily or solely a “belief in God” is superficial.

    A Dictionary of the Social Sciences, edited by Julius Gould & William L. Kolb

    Religions are systems of belief, practice and organization which shape and ethic manifest in the behavior of their adherents. Religious beliefs are interpretations of immediate experience by reference to the ultimate structure of the universe, its centres of power and destiny; these are invariably conceived in supernatural terms. ...behavior is in the first instance ritual behavior: standardized practices by which the believers enact in symbolic form their relationship to the supernatural.

    This definition focuses the social and psychological aspects of religion — not surprising, in reference work for the social sciences. Despite the assertion that the religious interpretations of the universe are “invariably” supernatural, such beliefs are regarded as only one aspect of what constitutes region rather than the sole defining characteristic.