Functional Definition of Religion

Examining How Religion Operates and What Religion Does

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One common way to define religion is to focus on what are known as functional definitions: these are definitions which emphasize the way religion operates in human lives. When constructing a functional definition is to ask what religion does — usually psychologically or socially.

Functional Definitions

Functional definitions are so common that most academic definitions of religion can be categorized as either psychological or sociological in nature.

Psychological definitions focus upon the ways in which religion plays a role in the mental, emotional, and psychological lives of believers. Sometimes this is described in a positive way (for example as a means of preserving mental health in a chaotic world) and sometimes in a negative way (for example as with Freud’s explanation of religion as a type of neurosis).

Sociological Definitions

Sociological definitions are also very common, made popular by the work of sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. According to these scholars, religion is best defined by the ways in which it either has an impact upon society or the ways in which it is expressed socially by believers. In this manner, religion is not simply a private experience and cannot exist with a solitary individual; rather, it only exists in social contexts where there are multiple believers acting in concert.

From the functionalist perspective, religion doesn’t exist to explain our world but rather to help us survive in the world, whether by binding us together socially or by supporting us psychologically and emotionally.

Rituals, for example, may exist to influence our world, to bring us all together as a unit, or to preserve our sanity in a chaotic existence.

Psychological and Sociological Definitions

One of the problems with both psychological and sociological definitions is that it can be possible to apply them to almost any system of belief, including those which don’t look much like religions to us.

Is everything that helps us preserve our mental health a religion? Surely not. Is everything that involves social rituals and which structures social morality a religion? Again, that hardly seems likely — by that definition, the Boy Scouts would qualify.

Another common complaint is that functional definitions are reductionist in nature because they reduce religion to certain behaviors or feelings which aren’t inherently religious themselves. This bothers many scholars who object to reductionism on general principle but is also troubling for other reasons. After all, if religion can be reduced to a couple of entirely non-religious features which exist in many other non-religious systems, does that mean that there isn’t anything unique about religion? Should we conclude that the distinction between religious and non-religious belief systems is artificial?

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the psychological and sociological functions of religion are not important — functional definitions may not be enough by themselves, but they do seem to have something relevant to tell us. Whether too vague or too specific, functional definitions still end up focusing on something very relevant to religious belief systems.

A solid understanding of religion cannot be restricted to such a definition, but it should at least incorporate its insights and ideas.

One common way to define religion is to focus on what are known as functional definitions: these are definitions which emphasize the way religion operates in human lives. When constructing a functional definition is to ask what religion does — usually psychologically or socially.


Below are various short quotes from philosophers and scholars of religion which attempt to capture the nature of religion from a functionalist perspective:

Religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate condition of his existence.
- Robert Bellah

Religion is...the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being.

- F.H. Bradley

When I refer to religion, I will have in mind a tradition of group worship (as against individual metaphysic) that presupposes the existence of a sentience beyond the human and capable of acting outside of the observed principles and limits of natural science, and further, a tradition that makes demands of some kind on its adherents.
- Stephen L. Carter

Religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
- Emile Durkheim

All nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.
- Friedrich Engels

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities.... If one attempts to assign religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems...a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
- Sigmund Freud

A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
- Clifford Geertz

For an anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive conceptions of the world, the self and the relations between them on the one hand ... its model of aspect ... and of rooted, no less distinctive “mental” dispositions ... its model for aspect ... on the other.
- Clifford Geertz

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx

A religion we will define as a set of beliefs, practices and institutions which men have evolved in various societies, so far as they can be understood, as responses to those aspects of their life and situation which are believed not in the empirical-instrumental sense to be rationally understandable and/or controllable, and to which they attach a significance which includes some kind of reference ...of a supernatural order.
- Talcott Parsons

Religion is the serious and social attitude of individuals or communities toward the power or powers which they conceive as having ultimate control over their interests and destinies.
- J.B. Pratt

Religion is an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.
- Melford E. Spiro

[Religion is] a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature.
- Anthony Wallace

Religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.
- J. Milton Yinger