Definitions of Religion Across Disciplines

Religion is an influential concept that has a wide range of meanings and can be defined in many ways. It can help people feel a sense of community, connect to tradition and even improve health and life expectancy.

Definitions of religion have largely been developed by anthropology, history, philosophy and psychology, but a recent interest in religious science and cognitive science has also raised some questions about how the concept is understood. This entry examines these disciplinary perspectives and considers the meaning of the term “religion” in the context of these fields.

Functional approaches to defining religion generally trace their origins to Emile Durkheim (see Durkheim, Emile ). In his 1912 book, The Principles of Social Construction, he defined religion as “a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…” that unite into one unified moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.

Another approach to defining religion comes from sociology, which focuses on how social institutions shape human behavior. In this field, a class-based approach to defining religion is often used, which treats all members of the class as belonging to a single social genus that includes several tokens.

This approach may be particularly useful when the class is comprised of both functional and substantive elements. It does not require a threshold number of tokens that each member must have to be a religion, but rather allows for more complex patterns in the group, which might lead to explanatory theories.

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