Defining Religion


Substantive Definitions

- Attempt to explain what religion actually is 

- try to get to the innnter core of religion, expressing its essence 

- Tylor (1903) - 'belief in spiritual beings'

- Durkheim - 'a unified system of beliefs and practicised relatice to scared things, that is, things ser apart and forbidden which unite into one single moral community - called a church - all those who adhere to them' 

- focuses on religion as a group activity and they way we associate symbols of religion 

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Criticisms of Substantive Definitions

can't define what should and should not be religious 

should New Age Beliefs be classed as religious?

too heavily based on monotheistic religions

doesn't tell us what religions does, just what it is 

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Functional Definitions

- focus on what religion actually does, the functions it provides 

- religion is a product of society and needs to be defined in its contribution to society 

- Yinger (1970) 'the functions that religon performs for the individual such as assuring them of the big questions' 


  • too broad and include things many do not regard as religious 
  • also assumes religion is useful 
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Inclusivist vs Exclusivist


  • tend to leave broad definitions
  • some ideoligies that are not seen as religous can be included, i.e. football 


  • tend to offer restrictive definitions 
  • narrows down to the specifically religious 
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Other Definitions

Giddens (2006) Working Definition 

'religions involve a set of symbols, invoking feelings of reverence or awe, and are linked to rituals or ceremonials engaged in by a community of believers' 

Southwold (1978)

'concern with godlike being, concerne with the sacred, salvation, rituals/practices, belief in faith, ethical code, supernatural sanction, sacred text, religious elite and links with a moral community' 

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Types of Religion

Theistic Religion 

  • focuses on the sacred, higher, and controlling power 
  • this is a source of moral code and is worthy of great reverence 

Monotheistic - one diving power, e.g. Christianity and Islam

Polytheistic - number of seperate gods e.g. Hinduism 

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