The Nature of Religion


Religion ideally serves several functions: It gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, helps people control their actions, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.

Religious practices can involve a variety of experiences, including crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with those around you, and other emotional and psychological states. Such experiences can be profoundly moving or deeply unsettling.

They can also be powerfully transformative or just plain fun and entertaining.

The modern debate over the nature of religion is characterized by an incredible variety of definitions, each offering a different perspective on what it means to be religious. This article aims to provide an overview of the major kinds of definitions, and to offer some brief commentary and criticism on each.

Monothetic Definitions

Those who advocate monothetic definitions of religion usually do so because they believe that this approach is the best way to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence (see Southwold 1978: 367). They also do so because they feel that this approach can recognize more properties of a prototypical form of life than a polythetic approach.

These definitions often emphasize the relationship between metaphysics and axiology, or between beliefs about the nature of the universe and prescriptions for life that are grounded in those accounts. They also focus on the relationship between religion and the rest of the world, or between religion and the culture of a particular society.

They can also emphasize the role that religion plays in a person’s ethos, or sense of personal morality, and the relationship between those philosophies and the cultural environment of the community in which they live. They can also focus on the philanthropic activity that many religious communities engage in, or the transmission of moral principles from one generation to another.

Functional Definitions

In the twentieth century, a major shift in the way scholars have defined religion occurred. This shift was reflected in the work of sociologists such as Emile Durkheim (1912), who defined religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unite a number of people into a single moral community. These socially-functioning systems of beliefs and practices can be quite complex, but Durkheim was able to identify them as being a legitimate religion because they were organized by a dominant concern that involved belief in unusual realities.

This kind of social functionalism is a relatively new theory of the origin of religion. It has been influenced by a tradition of sociology of religion that traces its roots to the German philosophers of the nineteenth century such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.

While these theories have been useful in the study of religion, they are not without problems. For example, they can lead to a fundamentalist interpretation of religion, which is problematic because it implies that belief in an unseen, impersonal force is the central characteristic of religious belief.