Religion Definitions



  • Focus on the content/substance of religious belief 
  • Belief in God/ supernatural 

Weber (1905) 

  • religion= 'belief in superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically' 
  • Substantive definitions are exclusive; distinguish between religious and non-religious beliefs 
  • To be a religion, beliefs must include a belief in God or supernatural 
  • Conform to a widespread view of religionas belief in God 


  • this leaves no room for belief and practices and that perform similar functions to religion, but don't believe in God 
  • Western bias- exclude religions that don't have western concept of 'God' (e.g. Buddhism) 
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  • Defines religion in terms of the social/psychological functions it performs for society 

Durkhiem (1915) 

  • defines religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration, rather than any specific belief in God/ supernatural 

Yinger (1970) 

  • identifies functions religion performs for individuals 
  • answering 'ultimate questions' (e.g. meaning of life)
  • Functional definitions are inclusive, allow to include a wide range of beliefs and practices (e.g. integration)
  • There is no bias against non-Western religions (doesn't specify belief in God) 


  • just because a group integrates doesn't make it a religion. 
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Social Construction

  • Interpretivist approach; focusing on how members of society define religon 
  • Not possible to produce a single universal definition 
  • Different individuals and groups have different definitions of religion 
  • Social constructionist are interested in how definitions of religion are constructed 

Aldridge (2007) 

  • Scientiology is a religion for followers, but banned by many governments. Denied legal status.
  • Definitions of religion can be contested and influence by those who have power to define.
  • Social constructionists don't assume religion involves a belief in God/supernatural .Or that it performs similar functions for everyone in all societies 
  • Allows to get close to all meanings 


  • Can't generalise about nature of religion, since many people have different views about religion. 
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