Substantive and Essentialist Definitions of Religion

Examining the Content and Essence of Religions

Many people involved with the study of religion try to define it based upon its conceptual content. According to substantive and essentialist definitions, religion is characterized by some basic essence which is common to all religious systems, but not to any non-religious systems.

One of the most popular essentialist definitions today is based upon the notion of the “sacred” — an idea introduced largely by the work of theologian Rudolf Otto with what he called the numinous.

This was extended by the research of Mircea Eliade, who emphasized that the nature of religion could not be reduced beyond the difficult-to-define idea of the “sacred.” Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, defines the matter in his book Sacred Choices:

  • “Religion is the response to the sacred. So what is the sacred? The sacred is the superlative of precious. It is the word we use for that which is utterly and mysteriously precious in our experience. Since there is no one who finds nothing sacred, religion is all over the place.”

There are a number of problems with substantive definitions such as this. Aside from the fact that the above ignores many of the critical aspects of religion which are addressed by functional definitions, it doesn’t do much to really explain what the “sacred” is supposed to be. If all it amounts to is that which we value most highly, it doesn’t distinguish religion from other beliefs and belief systems very well.

Is a Yankees fan really “religious” in the same way that a Dominican monk is? That hardly seems fair to religion and doesn’t seem to provide a good basis for learning about or understanding religions.

Other essentialist definitions are not quite so vague. An early definition comes from one of the first scholars of religion, E.B.

Tylor. According to Tylor, religion can be defined simply as the “belief in spiritual beings.” Although the nature of what qualifies as “spiritual” may be a bit uncertain, this is still clearer than the notion of “the sacred.” Now, however, we have two new problems: not all systems which we might call religions necessarily include spiritual beings, and not everyone who believes in spiritual beings necessarily does so in the context of a religious system.

Finally, when we reduce religion to any one or even two features, we end up overlooking other attributes which are common to religious systems. If religion is reduced to “the sacred” or “belief in spiritual beings,” what about things like rituals or moral codes? Are they really so irrelevant? That doesn’t sound very likely, but we can be misled into thinking it is true if convinced that there is a single “essence” which defines religious belief systems. Religion is more multi-dimensional than substantive definitions give it credit for.

Thus the basic problem with substantive definitions of religion is that when they are general enough to perhaps apply to all religions, they are too vague to be very useful and end up being applicable to belief systems or beliefs which just shouldn’t be labeled religions.

Once they are no longer too vague, however, they describe as “essential” to religion something which not all religions actually have and which is not alone in structuring religious beliefs.

If we accept a substantive definition of religion, we end up looking at religion as simply a type of philosophy, a system of bizarre beliefs, or perhaps just a primitive understanding of nature and reality. From the substantive or essentialist perspective, religion originated and survives as a speculative enterprise which is all about trying to understand ourselves or our world and really has nothing to do with our social or psychological lives.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the concepts of the “sacred” or even of “spiritual beings” are not important to questions of religion — substantive definitions may not be enough by themselves, but they do seem to have something relevant to tell us.

Whether too vague or too specific, essentialist 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.

Many people involved with the study of religion try to define it based upon its conceptual content. According to substantive and essentialist definitions, religion is characterized by some basic essence which is common to all religious systems, but not to any non-religious systems.

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


To be religious is to effect in some way and in some measure a vital adjustment (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern.
- Vergilius Ferm.

By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.
- J.G. Frazer.

[Religion is] the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind.
- G.W.F. Hegel

Religion is the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.
- William James

I want to make clear that by the term ‘religion’ I do not mean a creed. It is, however, true that on the one hand every confession is originally based upon the experience of the numinous and on the other hand upon the loyalty, trust, and confidence toward a definitely experienced numinous effect and the subsequent alteration of consciousness: the conversion of Paul is a striking example of this.

‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinous.
- C.G. Jung

Religion (subjectively regarded) is the recognition of all duties as divine commands.
- Immanuel Kant

Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.

- James C. Livingston

Religion is a system of language and practice that organizes the world in terms of what is deemed sacred.
- William Paden

To take everything individual as a part of the whole, everything limited as a representation of the infinite, that is religion.... The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.
- Friedrich Schleiermacher

Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge.
- Herbert Spencer

The religious is any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.
- John Dewey

Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.
- Paul Tillich

Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.
- T. William Hall

I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.

- Erich Fromm

It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings. ...[S]o far as I can judge from the immense mass of accessible evidence, we have to admit that the belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races with whom we have attained to thoroughly intimate acquaintance.
- E.B. Tylor

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.

- A.N. Whitehead

Religion may best be understood as systematic anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to non human things or events.
- Stewart Guthrie