Chapter one - Theories of religion: definitions of religion

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  • Created on: 24-09-18 18:10

substantive definitions

These focus on the content or substance of religious belief, such as belief in God or the supernatural. 

For example, Max Weber (1905) defines religion as a belief in a superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically. Substantive defintions are exclusive - they draw a clear line between religious and non-religious beliefs. To be a religion, a set of beliefs must include belief in God or the supernatural.

Substantive definitions conform to a widespread view of religion as belief in God. However, defining religion in this way leaves no room for beliefs and practices that perform similar functions to religion but do not involve belief in God.These are examined below. Substantive definitons are also accused of Western bias because they exclude religions such as Buddhism, which do not have the western idea of a God.

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Functional definitions

Rather than defining religion in terms od specific kinds of belief, functional defintitions define it in terms of the social or psychological functions it performs for individuals or society. 

For example, Durkheim (1915) defines religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration, rather than any specific belief in God or the supernatural.

Another functionalist, Milton Yinger (1970) identifies functions that religion performs for individuals, such as answering 'ultimate questions'  about thr meaning of life and what happens when we die.

An advantage of the functional defintions is that they are inclusive  - allowing us to include a wide range of beliefs and practices that perform functions such as intergration. Also, since they do not specify belief in God or the supernatural, there is no bias agianst non-Western religions such as Buddhism. However, just because an institution helps integrates individuals into groups, this does not make it a religion. For example, collective collective chanting at fottball matches might give individuals a sense of intergration, but this does not make it a religion   

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constructionist definitions

Social constructionists take an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of themselves define religion. They argue that it it not possible to produce a single universal defintion of religion to cover all cases, since in reality different individuals and groups may mean very different things by 'religion'. 

Social constructionists are interested in how definitions of religions are constructured, challenged and fought over.  

Alan Aldridge (2013) shows how for it's followers, Scientology is a reiligion, whereas several governments have denied its legal status as a religion and sought to ban it. This shows that definitions of religion can be congested and are influenced by who has the power to define the situation.

Social constructionists do not assume that religion always involves a belief in God or the supernatural, or that it performs similar functions for everyone in all societies. Their approach allows them to get close to the meanings people themselves give to religion. However, this makes it impossible to generalise about the nature of religion, since people may have widely differing views about what counts as religion. 

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