Definitions of Religion What is Religion, Anyway?

What is religion? Given the spectacular variety of the world's religions, the question is not easy to answer. The word itself is a fairly modern and western one - a product of academic interest in studying this aspect of human life in a non-devotional context. "Religious" people have not historically used this word to describe themselves.

Below is a selection of definitions of religion and thoughts on religion from a wide variety of sources and perspectives. While no single definition can completely sum up what religion is, maybe together they can bring us to a better understanding of what we mean when we talk about "religion."

Lists of "Family Resemblances"

Some contemporary religious studies experts have adopted a "family resemblances" framework in defining religion.

"The best we can do is to come up with a list of overlapping family resemblances and then include inside our category those that seem to have enough of them to count as relatives." (Stephen Prothero, Religion Matters)

The "3B framework" lists these family traits as:

  1. Belief
  2. Behavior (rituals, ethics)
  3. Belonging (community, organizations)

Religion historian Catherine Albanese suggests the Four C's:

  1. Creeds (beliefs)
  2. Codes (ethics)
  3. Cultus (rituals; from Latin)
  4. Community (groups tied together by creeds, codes, and cultus)

And Ninian Smart describes seven dimensions of religion as follows:

  1. Ritual (ceremonies)
  2. Narrative/mythic (stories)
  3. Experiential/emotional (feelings of awe, bliss, guilt, etc.)
  4. Social/institutional (organizations)
  5. Ethical/legal (moral codes, religious laws)
  6. Doctrinal/philosophical (beliefs, creeds)
  7. Material (ritual objects, religious buildings)

Academic Definitions of Religion

"A general term used in most modern European languages to designate all concepts concerning the belief in God(s) and Goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns." Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997)

"Relation of human beings to God or the gods or to whatever they consider sacred or, in some cases, merely supernatural." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (online, 2006)

"Human beings' relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine." Encyclopædia Britannica (online, 2006)

"A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (online, 2006)

Historical Academic Definitions of Religion

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." ~ Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), trans. Joseph Ward Swain, p. 47

"Viewed systematically, religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue only of its reference to superhuman beings." ~ Melford Spiro

"Religion is the human attitude towards a sacred order that includes within it all being — human or otherwise — i.e., belief in a cosmos, the meaning of which both includes and transcends man." ~ Peter Berger

"Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life." ~ William James

"...for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence." ~ R.N. Bellah

"Religion is that which grows out of, and gives expression to, experience of the holy in its various aspects." ~ Rudolph Otto, quoted in Penguin Dictionary of Religion

Positive/Religious Quotes on Religion

"The religious response is a response to experience and is coloured by the wish to provide a wider context for a fragile, short and turbulent life." ~ Philip Rousseau, The Early Christian Centuries (2002), p. 4.

"To be religious is to have one's attention fixed on God and on one's neighbour in relation to God." ~ C.S. Lewis, "Lilies that Fester" in The Twentieth Century (April 1955).

"Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."
~James 1:27, New Testament

"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness." ~ A.N. Whitehead

"Religion itself is nothing else but Love to God and Man. He that lives in Love lives in God, says the Beloved Disciple: And to be sure a Man can live no where better." ~ William Penn

"Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; Unbelief, in denying them." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We go into religion in order to feel warmer in our hearts, more connected to others, more connected to something greater and to have a sense of peace." ~ Goldie Hawn, Beliefnet interview

Negative/Skeptical Quotes on Religion

"Man makes religion; religion does not make man.... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the mind of a heartless world, as it is the mind of mindless conditions. It is the opiate of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand of their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions of its conditions is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions." ~ Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1844), trans. Tim Newcomb, p. 21

"Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of." ~ Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Notebook (1879)

"Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion -- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven." ~ Mark Twain, "The Lowest Animal" or "Man's Place in the Animal World" in Letters from the Earth (1897)

"Religion is the daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the Unknowable."
~ Ambrose Bierce

"Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires."
~ Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

"Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." ~ Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

"I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason, and to a stage of development which we are now outgrowing." ~ Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda (1922), p. 10

"One's religion is whatever he is most interested in."
~ J.M. Barrie, The Twelve-Pound Look (1910)

Sources & Further Reading

  1. The Religions Book. 2013.
  2. Concise History of World Religions: An Illustrated Time Line. 2011.
  3. Albanese, Catherine L. America: Religions and Religion, 5th ed.. 2012.
  4. James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 31. 1902.
  5. Marx, Karl; trans. Tim Newcomb. Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p. 21. 2023. Accessed 22 Jun 2024.
  6. Partridge, Christopher, ed. Introduction to World Religions, 3rd ed.. 2018.
  7. Prothero, Stephen. Religion Matters, "What is Religion All About?" Kindle Loc. 743-812. 2020.
  8. Russell, Bertrand. Free Thought and Official Propaganda, p. 10. 1922. Accessed 22 Jun 2024.
  9. Smart, Ninian. The World's Religions, 2nd ed.. 1998.
  10. Smidt, Corwin E. "Measuring Religion in Terms of Belonging, Beliefs, and Behavior." 26 Mar 2019.