A Functional Definition of Religion


Religion is a central element of the lives of two-thirds of the world’s people. It is a significant factor in morality, education, health, family life, and economic well-being, and it plays a significant role in the prevention of mental disorders. Yet despite this fact, public policy, psychotherapy, and the media tend to treat religion as an alien force in human society. This mischaracterization is detrimental to the lives of many individuals and to our understanding of this important phenomenon.

Substantive definitions of religion entail beliefs in a distinctive kind of reality, and are usually restricted to those beliefs that involve an appeal to supernatural powers or beings. These are the types of definitions that anthropologists and sociologists used in the nineteenth century—Marcuse Weber’s “religion as a set of practices” and Emile Durkheim’s “religion as any system of beliefs and practices that unites people into a moral community.” The problem with these stipulative definitions is that they exclude most non-Western ideas of deities and spirits, and can lead to ethnocentricity when applied to a single culture.

A more useful approach is the functional definition of religion. This is a multifactorial approach that recognizes that there are some properties that are common to all forms of life, regardless of whether they believe in unusual realities. It also acknowledges that some forms of life are more prototypically religious than others, and seeks to articulate gradations between these. Such an anchored definition, like the ones endorsed by Hans Jonas’ intelligent application of modern existentialist categories to Gnosticism and Rudolf Otto’s category of the holy, avoids the problem of monothetic stipulative definitions, but does not produce a sharp line between religion and nonreligion.

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