Studying religion
Studying religion

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5.3 Scholarly definitions of religion

Scholars offer us many different definitions of religion, but these definitions tend to be of two types. The first type is known as a substantive definition: that is, a definition that tells us what kind of thing religion is by pointing to its distinguishing characteristic – usually its beliefs and/or practices. We can find an example of a substantive definition of religion in my summary of the definitions found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Think again about d. According to this definition, religion is the ‘human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God’.

This particular example, which we have already found to be narrow, illustrates the major problem scholars find with many substantive definitions that attempt to describe religion in terms of one distinguishing characteristic. This substantive definition refers to a superhuman power or personal God; others have portrayed religion primarily in terms of the inner experience of the individual or in terms of the social and organisational aspect of religious life.

The selection of a defining characteristic, upon which a substantive definition of religion depends, often reveals prejudice – perhaps a personal religious (even a denominational) bias or a broad cultural bias. Trying to define religion in terms of one kind of belief – for example, the belief in one god – may be understandable within the context of Western Europe, which has been dominated historically by Christianity, but is narrow and inflexible when considering religion as a global phenomenon – Buddhism is a case in point. To define religion in terms of one characteristic practice – for example, prayer – appears equally inflexible once religion is treated as a label for a type of activity found across cultures and since the dawn of human history.

In order to avoid being too narrow and too rigid, many scholars prefer a different type of definition known as a functional definition. A functional definition concentrates not on what religion is (its beliefs and practices, for example) but on what these beliefs and practices do for the individual and the social group – on the needs they fulfil (for example, in providing or contributing to bonding, identity, comfort, and security). One well-known example of this kind of definition refers to religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life’ (Yinger, 1970, p. 7).

Here you see that the focus of the definition is not on the substance of the beliefs and practices but on what they do for people. Religion, as a means by which human beings struggle with ‘the ultimate problems of human life’, distinctively responds to questions of meaning and purpose raised most sharply, for example, through our encounters with suffering and death. Other functional definitions speak of religion as providing meaning, as a source of fulfilment, as a means of personal transformation, and as a force for social cohesiveness. The advantage of functional definitions is their flexibility. Their disadvantage is that they are not so helpful in determining where religion ends and something else begins.

This fuzzy, blurring tendency in functional definitions is heightened by references such as the one in our example to ‘ultimate problems’– other definitions refer to matters of ‘ultimate importance’. In other words, according to these definitions, religion distinctively deals with those things in a person's life that are of such importance that everything else is secondary. This is certainly flexible and inclusive but is it sufficiently specific? Aren't we back to the problem we met in Section 2 when I asked you to consider the difference between following religion and following football? You might say that football hardly offers answers to the ‘ultimate problems of life’ (if you follow Yinger's definition). But following football does appear to make everything else secondary in the lives of some of its fans. Both these things can be the most important thing in people's lives. It seems that, when we come to definitions of religion, we are likely to face a difficult choice between the specific but narrow, and the flexible but vague. Is there a way around this problem?

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