Older Dictionaries on the Definition of Religion

Defining Religion

Definition of Believe
Definition of Believe. Believe Definition

Every dictionary includes a definition of religion, but not every dictionary does an equally good job at explaining the concept. Some are decent, but others are horrible. Sometimes older dictionaries have better definitions than newer ones, but even if they are flawed the older definitions can provide some interesting insight into how the concept has been understood in the past as well as how it has evolved.


Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913:

Religion: The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love, fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power, whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and worship; a manifestation of piety.

This definition focuses almost entirely on belief in the existence of deities, as if it weren't possible for a belief system to be a religion of any sort if it didn't include gods. Even worse than that, this definition specifies that the gods in question are gods which power over our lives and to whom we owe some level of obedience and service.

This definition of religion thus not only excludes many forms of Buddhism and religious humanism which either don't have any gods or which simply don't place any emphasis on them, but even deistic belief systems which do include belief in a god, but not a god which must be obeyed or worshipped in any fashion.

The fact that there are belief systems which are generally acknowledged as religions which this definition explicitly excludes means that the definition itself must be excluded as accurate.

Such problems might lead one to conclude that this definition from 1913 is simply too narrow and exclusive to be very useful.

At the same time, though, this definition is exactly the sort you are likely to find many people using even today. Indeed, this conception of what religion must be continues to be so popular that the definition could just as easily have been published in 2013 as 1913, so it needs to be understood in order to properly understand how it's usually used in casual conversation.

This dictionary definition is not without its positive aspects, however. Note that it acknowledges the important role played by rites and ceremonies in the expression religious belief. Far too many definitions of religion fail to even mention them, much less point out their importance, and that's despite the fact that rituals, ceremonies, and other types of services take up a large amount of the time people actually spend thinking about and dealing with their religion.

This definition also at least acknowledges that a religion might include belief in multiple gods. Although it should be obvious that religion is not limited to monotheistic belief systems, the inclination to define religion generally by the most popular forms it exists in today has led some to do exactly that — it's the same reason why people limit religion to only those systems which include belief in gods, except taken a step farther.


The New Century Dictionary, 1927:

Religion: Recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power entitled to obedience, reverence and worship; the feeling or the spiritual attitude of those recognizing such a controlling power; also, a manifestation of such feeling in conduct or life; the practice of sacred rites or observances.

This definition from 1927 makes the same central mistake as the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary from 1913: it focuses on a particular sort of theism as the core defining characteristic of religion. It also includes the main positive feature of that earlier definition, in that it recognizes the relevance of rituals to the religious life of believers.

Where it differs is that it seems to suggest that a "practice of sacred rites or observances" alone might constitute a religion.

In some ways this would be a step forward because it means acknowledging that religion can exist without gods; in other ways it's a problem because it means that a religion still has to be focused around something "sacred," a concept which is typically limited to things associated with gods.


The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1966:

Religion: 1. The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc., constituting man’s relationship with the powers and principles of the universe, especially with a deity or deities; also, any particular system of such beliefs, attitudes, etc.

2. An essential part or a practical test of the spiritual life.

3. An object of conscientious devotion or scrupulous care: e.g. His work is a religion to him.

This dictionary definition is noteworthy for making explicit the fact that belief in gods — and, in particular, gods which control our destiny — is not necessary for a belief system to qualify as a religion. Although it acknowledges that belief in a god or gods is common, it is clear that religion has to do with wider issues regarding the nature of the universe and reality.

This definition also points out how religion encompasses different aspects of human existence, including attitudes and behavior. Unfortunately, it fails to make any mention about how social aspects of religious system can be important.