The Definition of Religion

Religion is a social genus that unites people in shared beliefs. It is one of the most important human institutions and forms the foundation for moral order. It is also the primary source of value for humans and the means through which it transmits that value from one generation to the next.

It is an essential human need to have faith, to find meaning and value in life and, at times, to die for what they believe. Religion is the most intensive and comprehensive expression of that need.

In contrast, non-religious people may have beliefs in things like science and family but they are not necessarily religious. They might not even know that they have such beliefs.

When defining religion, some scholars use substantive criteria such as belief in spiritual beings or ultimate concern. Others use functional criteria such as the distinctive role that a form of life plays in one’s life.

Some scholars, such as Edward Burnett Tylor, argue that the definition of religion should be based on its deeper purpose. For example, he argued that narrowing the definition to be the belief in a supreme deity or judgment after death would exclude many peoples from the category of religious, and that it would have the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them.

Nevertheless, it is the basic human need to have a framework for meaning and truth in life which should be the focus of all discussion on religion. If we do not have this framework, it can easily be perverted or used to justify evil and atrocities.

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