Defining Religion

theories of religion

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  • Created by: Natasha
  • Created on: 30-09-09 12:44

Defining Religion

Religion has been defined in many ways:

  • A belief in some kind of supernatural power
  • An expression of this belief in collective worship
  • A set of moral values which guide action
  • A force which brings people together and unfies society

These definitions let in a variety of activities under the heading of religion. For example, people talk about football as the new religion. There have been many activities, which can be seen as supernatural – astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft and a belief in ghosts.As a starting point, most sociologists would probably agree that religions typically involve:

  • An organised collectivity of individuals, with
  • A shared system of beliefs and
  • A set of approved activites and practices.
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Substantive definition of religion

There are, of course, serious questions about the extent to which members of any of the world’s religions agree with fellow members’ beliefs and practices. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism all experience divisions into often rival groupings. There are even questions about how organised a collectivity of individuals has to be to constitute a religion – especially since the advent of the Internet. Most sociological definitions of religion focus on what religion is – a substantive definition – or the roles religions play in society – functional definitions.

Substantive definition of religion

Belief in the supernatural – sociologists adopting substantive definitions have tried to identify what is distinctive about religious beliefs. For example, Max Weber saw religion as involving a belief in the supernatural that is some power above the forces of nature. This suggests a belief in a being or beings, powers or forces, which are in some ways superior to humans, and which cannot be vertified or explained by Western science.

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Substantive definition of religion...***

Relating to the sacred - an alternative substantive definition is provided by Emile Durkheim. For him, the key to religious beliefs is not that they relate to a supernatural power or being, but that they relate to things which a society's members perceive as sacred.

Durkheim argued that, in all societies, people divide the world about them into things which are regarded as sacred and those which are considered profane - non-sacred, worldy, ordinart. Sacred things are 'things set apart and forbidden'. things, or people, seen as sacred evoke strong emotions of awe, respect and deference. For instance, in some societies, the monarch has inspired a sense of what Durkheim calls the sacred. Things regarded as sacred both draw the believer towards them while at the same time maintaining their distance.

In practice, a supernatural being (such as a god) is likely to be regarded as sacred. However, it seems as though anything could be regarded as sacred, however ordinary and mundane it may appear to outsiders. People or things regarded as sacred do not, therefore, have to be supernatural.

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Functional definitions of religion

Functional definitions of religion

Functional definitions stress the ways religions contribute to societies. They focus on the role or the function of religion in society. For Durkheim, religion refers to beliefs and practices concerning sacred things. These religious beliefs and practices 'unite into one single moral community.. all those who adhere to them'. Thus, a key component of religion, he suggests, is that it encourages social solidarity or social unity between fellow-believers who make up a society.

That, of course, isnt the only function that religion may perform in society. Other suggested functions are discuessed shortly. Nevertheless, in Durkheim's view, it is because religion plays this crucial role of strengthing social solidarity that it occurs in all societies.

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Supernatural beings or forces - One criticism made of the widely-hel view that religion involves belief in the supernatural is the recognition that not all cultures see a distinction between the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. Angels, spirits and gods can be a 'real', 'lived', and 'natural' part of peoples experience. Indeed, it can be argued that what is meant by supernatural may be nothing more that what is currently beyond Western scientific understanding. Also, if religion always involves belief in the supernatural, is every supernatural belief, by definition, religious?

The sacred - Durkheims notion of the sacred has also been challenged as not universally applicable - that is, not present in every society. It has also been pointed out that what people regard as sacred does not always command respect and awe. Durkheims view of the sacred has been criticised for being too broad and including too much. It allows other belief systems, such as nationalism and communism, to be seen as religious

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Functional definitions - a criticism.

Functional defintions have also been criticised on preciselt the same grounds as Durkheims focus on the sacred. Such definitions would again include belief systems such as communism and nationalism, and even activities such as sports, where chared beliefs and rituals also encourage unity among 'believers'.

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