The Substantive Definition of Religion

Religion is a social genus that contains practices in which humans seek meaning, a connection with something larger than themselves, and guidance in their lives. It also embodies and transmits the means to attain goals that transcend the organization (such as a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful life) and even the end of the universe itself. These goals may be proximate (such as the goal of a better future) or ultimate (such as the goal of rebirth). The means to attain them may be intellectual, emotional, or experiential and are transmitted through art, architecture, gestures, songs, prayers, and silences.

The range of practices that can be grouped under the category of religion is wide and diversified. In the past, sociologists sorted this broad taxon into categories by formal strategies: a functional definition, or a concept that names an inevitable feature of human life. Both approaches have been challenged, but the question of whether or not religion can be defined substantively remains.

Substantive definitions are thought to resist a passive image of humans as passive social actors and the notion that anything that benefits society is automatically religious. They are also regarded as offering resistance to the tendency to see all forms of philosophic inquiry as essentially religious. In addition, substantive concepts of religion are often viewed as being more compatible with scientific and philosophical theories of the world. For example, the Baha’i Faith’s teachings on equality, diversity, and social progress address many societal challenges and positions it as one of the world’s best religions.

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