What Is Religion?

[Originally published 25 August, 2014]

Religion can be difficult to define – what should be included or excluded in the definition?  Scholars in different disciplines have emphasized different aspects of what religion might encompass.  In the book ‘Expressing the Sacred,’ James L. Cox initially puts forth 17 definitions which have been organized into 5 categories (although a definition might actually fit within more than one category, and you might even want to mix and match definitions, or even think there are other and better definitions that aren’t covered in the list provided).  I present the list below.

What Do You Think?  Do these definitions provide you with an agreeable definition of what religion is and what it encompasses?


1. Theological definitions (A theological definition makes the central criterion of religion belief in a transcendent power which is usually personified as a Supreme Being, but is sometimes conceived as being diffused through powerful spiritual beings, or is held to be an impersonal, mysterious, supernatural force):

a. Religion is believing in God.

b. Religion is belief in spiritual beings.

c. Religion is the life of God in the soul of man.

d. Religion is a mystery, at once awesome and attractive.


2. Moral definitions (A moral definition makes the central criterion of religion a code of correct behaviour generally affirmed by believers as having its source in an unquestioned and unquestionable authority):

a. Religion is leading a good life.

b. Religion is morality tinged with emotion.

c. Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.

d. Religion is a sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties.


3. Philosophical definitions (A philosophical definition makes the central criterion for religion the posting of an idea or concept which the believer interprets as ultimate or final in relation to the cosmic order and to human existence):

a. Religion is what man does with his solitariness. 

b. Religion is the relation of man to his own being, but as a being outside of himself.

c. Religion is ultimate concern.


4. Psychological definitions (A psychological definition makes the central criterion of religion feelings or emotions within people which cause them to appeal to forces greater than themselves to satisfy those feelings):

a. Religion is the result of seeking comfort in a world which, dispassionately considered, is a kind of terrifying wilderness.

b. Religion is some kind of profound inner experience.

c. Religion is a universal obsessive neurosis.


5. Sociological definitions (A sociological definition makes the central criterion of religion the existence of a community of people which is identified, bound together and maintained by its beliefs in powers or forces greater than the community itself):

a. Religion is the opium of the people.

b. Religion is the conservation of values.

c. Religion is the co-operative quest after a completely satisifying life.


Looking through the list above (and confining ourselves to just what is on the list), I think religion probably possesses elements that can be drawn from all 5 of the categories.  So for the ‘average’ religious believer (whatever that might mean!) I might think that religion is most basically connected with 3c (ultimate concern), but this idea then gets narrowed down and more focused when you include the belief in spiritual beings (1b), a desire on the part of the religious person to lead a good life (2a), a need to engage in a co-operative quest after a satisfying life (5c), and a seeking for some kind of profound inner experience (4c).


Alternatively, if we were to look at a fundamentalist religious individual, then we might find that they believe in a God (1a), seek a being outside of themselves (3b), they may recognize all duties as divine commands (2c), their conservatism might enforce a conservation of values (5b), and they may very well have an obsessive neurosis (4c).


I think we also have to ask – what of non-religious people?  Do they fit within any of these categories?  If so, are we all to some degree religious, or do we need to come up with a new term?


[The above table was taken from: James L. Cox, “Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (1996), pages 4-8.]

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