What Is Religion?

Ironically, one of the most debated questions in religious studies is the definition of religion. In most disciplines there is at least a general consensus about how to define the subject of inquiry. Biochemistry is the study of the chemical substances and vital processes occurring in living organisms. Astronomy is the scientific study of matter in outer space with particular attention paid to the positions, dimensions, distribution, motion, composition, energy, and evolution of celestial bodies and phenomena. Clear disciplinary boundaries are not limited to the hard sciences, however. If you study English Literature it is plain to everyone what the subject of your inquiry is, even though one’s individual study within that discipline may be focused on Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Victorian or Modern texts. Such transparency about the topic at hand simply does not exist in religious studies.

Despite the difficulties caused by this definitional deficiency, there are some good reasons why scholars of religious studies equivocate about what religion is. Since definitions have political significance, one’s definition of religion determines one’s position in ongoing power-struggles. Religious studies departments in the liberal, secular academy see themselves as doing something different from religiously affiliated seminaries and so they do not take up theological methods to understand religion. Indeed various theological methods may constitute part of the religious phenomena which a scholar of religion needs to explain. A scholar of religious studies usually approaches religion as a set of practices, texts, myths, attitudes and social relations. Although they study Troeltsch, Tillich, Barth and Niebuhr along with Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard and Hegel as part of the history of modern religious thought, the theories and methods scholars of religion use to explain religion most often come from the social sciences following classical social scientists like Freud, Durkheim, Weber as well as more contemporary ones like Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, Mary Douglas Clifford Geertz and even Pierre Bourdieu.

The perennial question, of course, is whether or not a social scientific analysis of religion works. Religionists often contend that social scientists offer only reductive or material definitions (which undergird full-fledged theories) of religion and that they cannot actually elucidate anything about religion per se since these social scientists make religion into psychology, sociology or anthropology instead of religion. Other religionists who want to allow social scientists to analyze religion with the tools of their disciplines suggest they limit their work to questions of origin and function and avoid questions of meaning and truth. In other words, some religionists would say that social scientists can explain the cause of religion but not interpret its meaning. Still others think the distinction between explanation and interpretation is a difficult one to maintain.

Here are some randomly chosen attempts to define religion:

Ernst Troeltsch—

“Religion is fluid and full of life, at every moment drawing on the direct touch of God; extremely inward, personal individual and abrupt; most lively [at times] farthest from the church.”

Paul Tillich—

“Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern . . . manifest in the moral sphere as the unconditional seriousness of moral demand . . . in the realm of knowledge as the passionate longing for ultimate reality . . . in the aesthetic function of the human spirit as the infinite desire to express ultimate meaning.”
(Theology of Culture)


His best known definition: “the feeling of absolute dependence”
Lesser known: “Religion is for you at one time a way of thinking, a faith, a particular way of contemplating the world, and of combining what meets us in the world: at another, it is a way of acting, a peculiar desire and love, a special kind of conduct and character. Without this distinction of a theoretical and practical you could hardly think at all, and though both sides belong to religion, you are usually accustomed to give heed chiefly to only one at a time” (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers)


“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices about sacred things which beliefs and practices unite al those who adhere to them into one single moral community termed Church”

William James—–

Religion is “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

Robert Bellah—-

“Religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relates man to the ultimate condition of his existence.”


“We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

I am interested in how you would define religion and why. Is religion mostly about beliefs and practices? Are religious feelings relevant? How? What about history, tradition and texts? Is religion a private affair or a public affair or both? Definitions that are too narrow tend to fall prey to the WAB (What About Buddhism?) objection while definitions that are too broad are easily criticized for defining everything from Nazism to basketball as religion.

21 comments for “What Is Religion?

  1. I forgot to mention that I’ll be away for a few days so I won’t be able to respond to your definitions until I return.

  2. It seems to me that Religion should have at least two seperate definitions.

    There is a need for a legal definition so that states and countries can properly make laws concerning religion.

    However, the legal definition does not need to interfere with what I will call the “Spiritual” definition, which can be much broader, bringing in Buddism, Atheism, or any other set of beliefs about the existence or non-existence of higher powers.

    I will not attempt to write either definition myself.

  3. One occasionally useful definition is “religion is what I do.” This definition, though obviously incomplete, has the clear advantage over certain competitors that it also helps in the definition of at least two other words. Here’s an illustrative sentence: “Magic or superstition is what YOU do.”

    (Actually grappling with the topic of this thread might strain too many neurons at the moment.)

  4. I’ll go for a holistic definition:

    Religion is everything you think, believe, do, & don’t do.

    There, that wasn’t so hard, now was it? Of course, this requires us to actually molde our lives to fit our beliefs & actually change how we living according to our values. Hm…maybe it’s not worth the definitional pithy & precise-ness?

  5. I’d kick Freud off the list of people (believers & unbelievers) who might have something useful to tell us about religion. If he hadn’t told the intelligentsia exactly what they wished to hear, his “discoveries” would have died with him. I sort of like Lyle’s definition: all-encompassing. “I have never at any time given you a law which was temporal,” etc.

  6. The problem with Lyle’s definition is that it doesn’t define anything. If everything is religion, then the word doesn’t tell us anything. For starters, it doesn’t differentiate the religious from those who aren’t.

  7. Melissa, this is a very tough question. I’m sympathetic to Schleiermacher’s definitions, especially the first, but I hesitate to make religion into a psychological state because it isn’t that difficult to think of religions, such as Confucianism, that don’t seem to be described well as a psychological states, whether of dependence or something else. But I think that Schleiermacher’s definition can give us some guidance. Perhaps it is a start to say that religion is attention to that which exceeds ordinary experience. That is still too broad because it doesn’t differentiate between art and religion, but I think it is a start. In addition, I don’t like the word “attention” because it continues to make religion something psychological. What makes religion what it is and differentiates it from art, I think, is that those in a religion are oriented within the world and in particular ways to and by what exceeds the ordinary world. The particular ways in which we are oriented by religion are the kinds of things that I think Schleiermacher is trying to get at in his second definition. So, what if we were to say something like this: a religion is a way of living in which the world has its character from an orientation to what exceeds the ordinary world? Is there any religion that doesn’t have some notion of that which transcends?

  8. Jim: you are right, of course…it doesn’t describe _anything_ because it describes _everything_. However, as you are aware, there is an inverse relationship between descriptiveness & utility. We can either be pithy or detailed. pick your poison.

    btw, I purposely do _not_ differentiate between religions & -non, because I don’t think you can…at least not in a legal sense. If religion can be given no special _right_, then neither can, nor should, any other _belief_, whether “religions” or “secular.” I’m simply collapsing religious & secular belief into one.

  9. maybe jim/melissa would prefer the potter stewart paraphrase answer, which is what I think Dave just suggested, i.e.:

    “I can’t define it/tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.”

  10. Lyle, I had no idea that there was an inverse relation between descriptiveness and utility. I still don’t. It may be true that we can be either pithy or detailed–that seems true by definition–but I don’t see any necessary connection between either pithiness and utility, on the one hand, or being-detailed and descriptive, on the other. So, the dichotomy between pithiness and detail is irrelevant to the question of whether a descriptive definition can be useful. In fact, a non-descriptive definition would be useless, which was my point.

  11. I’ve just come back to a mountain of work so I can’t give the kind of answer I would like to give here. Nevertheless, I’ll make some quick comments.

    Jim, I too am sympathetic to Schleiermacher’s definitions (both of them actually). By defining religion as “the feeling of absolute dependence,” S describes an experience that can be differentiated from physical or moral feelings–something not reducible to ethics, aesthetics or natural law.

    You write,

    “a religion is a way of living in which the world has its character from an orientation to what exceeds the ordinary world”

    Your definition deftly avoids the trap of reference to the supernatural by focusing on transcendence (I don’t know of any religion which scholars want to classify as such that doesn’t have some idea of transcendence). Further, by describing religion as “a way of living” you can include, among other things, a wide variety of practices. You write that this “way of living” has its character from an orientation . . .” What do you mean by “orientation?” Is this orientation made up of beliefs? Some would argue that the study of religion should focus mostly on religious beliefs since they define religion as a set of particular beliefs. Defining religion exclusively in terms of conscious mental activity is problematic for many reasons, however. For example, anthropologists of religion often note that people report very different explanations of the rituals they perform together. There is rarely a unanimous description of a ritual’s meaning. In fact, many people who perform rituals cannot give any account of their meaning.

    To overcome this problem others argue that the study of religion should focus on practices. They define religion as a set of personal and communal practices–beliefs being incidental. This seems necessary to them, but is ultimately insufficient on my view.

    Lyle’s definition doesn’t further the theoretical task which has such weighty methodological implications for the study of religion, it is nevertheless instructive for the following reason. Lyle writes that “religion describes everything.” Lyle’s sense of holism is why I think we must reject Eliade’s dichotomy of the sacred and profane. The creation of conceptual categories like “sacred and profane” has produced a false binary that never existed for ancient peoples and may not even exist for many people today. The kind of separation that scholars imagine exists between these categories causes problems. While the ancients certainly made these kinds of distinctions (i.e. the clean vs. the unclean in Leviticus), it is easy in the contemporary world to think of these categories as autonomous spheres of life that do not bear on each other. But, this is not the way the ancients or the aborigines think.

    These categories and indeed the concept of “religion” itself may be a contemporary concept that we project onto texts and traditions. For this reason Jonathan Z. Smith has written “religion is solely a creation of the scholar’s study.” This may be the case. Since scholars must go on using the concept of religion, however, we need to resist slipshod definitions and avoid using categories like “sacred” as the sine qua non of religion. Further, definitions of religion that favor the mystical, private and apolitical cannot help scholars make sense of fundamentalist Islam and thus, should be revised.

  12. I came upon this at my blog that seemed relevant.

    “And what is religion? In each individual it is a sort of sentiment, or obscure perception, a deep recognition of a something in the circumambient All” – and if the mind of religious people will become more and more open to science: “Such a state of mind may properly be called a religion of science. Not that it is a religion to which science or the scientific spirit has itself given birth; for religion, in the proper sense of the term, can arise from nothing but the religious sensibility. But it is a religion, so true to itself, that it becomes animated by the scientific spirit, confident that all the conquests of science will be triumphs of its own…” (Peirce, “The Marriage of Religion and Science” CP 6:429)

  13. Clark,

    Before I got to the end of your post I was guessing that this was Dewey, but then I remembered that he wants to get rid of “religion” altogether (although not “religious”). Of course this statement makes perfect sense coming from Peirce.

  14. “Biochemistry is the study of the chemical substances and vital processes occurring in living organisms.”

    Well, it’s not so simple. Biochemistry used to be a well-defined field, but it is now so tightly linked to genetics, molecular biology, and even materials science that many chemists and biochemists are wringing their hands wondering what their departments should do. This is inevitable with the increase in interdisciplinary research, and reflects in this case a certain maturity of the field, now that the tools and methods are well developed and can be used by (nearly) anybody.

    My understanding (from my religious studies friends) is that your field, Melissa, is undergoing a current similar disciplinary crisis. I don’t see why you want one definition, one essence of religion. Whatever tools give you the insight or result that you want can define religion however you choose. It seems like you are asking a political question, since what we want religious studies to explain varies greatly with the field it is approached from, or the place: liberal eastern school or conservative Evangelical seminary. I see your question in a Kuhnian light: when a paradigm is created that attracts adherents, explaining what we want to know about religion (likely from a secular, humanist perspective), it will likely involve a redefinition of religion, and until then your field (and mine) may continue to be in crisis. The good news is that crisis is the most interesting and rewarding time to be involved in an academic pursuit.

    Woohoo, Kuhn.

  15. Yes the big difference between Peirce and James on the one hand and Dewey, Rorty and many others on the other is that the former believe in religion. Peirce in particular felt that religion could be made scientific and was “objective” in the sense of being open to all and analyzable. He felt that religion was vague which is what led to many of the confusion. Some confusing vagueness with inaccuracy or even untrustworthiness. However Peirce was much more careful.

  16. “What do you mean by ‘orientation?’ Is this orientation made up of beliefs?”

    By orientation, I mean something like “having meaningful bearings within the world” or “existing meaningfully in relation to things and others.” I’ve posted on my claim that beliefs are themselves practices. (All beliefs are practices, but not all practices are beliefs.) So practices are fundamental. Meaningful practice doesn’t require undergirding beliefs. (The fact that, as you say, many people give different accounts of rituals that they share and that many can give no account of their meaning—of the beliefs that supposedly undergird them—is evidence that practice is fundamental to belief.) I won’t bore you by repeating that discussion. Suffice it to say that an orientation isn’t a set of beliefs. Instead, it is a way of existing in the world. My notion of orientation owes a great deal to thinkers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

  17. Religion is the crass commercialization of an individuals soul and spirituality. Religion is a corporate entity. Spirituality is the beliefs of the individual

  18. Religion is the crass commercialization of an individuals soul and spirituality. Religion is a corporate entity. Spirituality is the beliefs of the individual

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