What is Religion? Problems in Definition


In the academic study of religion, there is currently no agreed-upon definition of what religion is. Obtaining consensus on any definition has been elusive as suggested by the number of definitions that have been forwarded. In this article, we will want to note why this has been the case within scholarship. We will also look at the strengths and weaknesses of several popular definitions. This article does not propose to solve the problem of definition nor does it propose any new definitions itself.

Although it is indeed odd that scholars of religion have produced literature on a subject they cannot agree on a definition of, most would not necessarily view this as an intractable problem. Scholars Rodrigues and Harding are of the opinion that,

“[T]he complexity inherent in defining religion adequately and satisfactorily is not ultimately a problem, even for scholars. It is common to most branches of learning. We routinely use words for a wide assortment of notions quite effectively without having to define them. The concept of “religion” is not particularly different in this regard. How does one define music and art? What exactly is the boundary between nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics, anthropology and sociology, history and literature, geography and environmental science, or quantum physics and mathematics?” (1).

The Difficulty of Finding an Inclusive Definition of Religion

Most people seem to have an idea of what religion is even if they can’t actually define religion itself. Often this will be by association concerning what religious persons do. For example, it does not take much for one to realize that such things as churches and mosques, prayers and preaching, spirits and gods, holidays such as Ramadan and Diwali, priests and monks, are religious phenomena. We seem to realize that these play an integral role in the religious lives of many people with society. And although such associations do capture some very real parts of religion, for scholars it is too narrow. How so?

If belief in God is what religion is then that would seem to do away with religious traditions such as Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism that place little, if any, emphasis on God or gods. If religion is to do with belief in a single creator God, as held by most Muslims and Christians, then that leaves unaccounted for the likes of Hinduism or various forms of paganism which hold to multiple gods. If religion is defined as a community or membership that gathers at a sacred location, such as in nature, churches, or in synagogues then that has no place for some UFO religions which exist only in the online sphere. If religion is belief in the supernatural then neither Satanism nor Raelianism would qualify. Inherent in these observations is the difficulty confronting scholars who have attempted to provide an inclusive definition of religion. In fact, this has led some thinkers, such as Wilfred Cantrell Smith, to contend that scholars should abandon the term “religion” altogether and replace it with “faith.” However, Smith’s proposition inevitably gives rise to the same problems we have just noted. It is not immediately apparent how the term faith would apply to aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism where it is not germane.

Categories of Definitions

A purview of academic literature suggests that definitions of religion fall into five general types: experiential, substantive, functionalist, family resemblance, and postmodern (2). Those who propose an experiential definition attempt to isolate a primary religious experience and then construct a theory around it. German theologian Rudolf Otto’s notion of the Holy is a good example. A substantive definition seeks to identify a central belief as the basis of a definition. This might include belief in spiritual beings and a supernatural reality. The functionalist definition attempts to determine how religion operates within a society. Emile Durkheim’s view of religion as “imminently social” and as a “system of forces” is one such definition. The family resemblance position looks for overlapping similarities between religions, such as theoretical (belief, myths, and doctrines), social (institutions, social behaviour, and sacred personages), practical (rites and moral codes), and experiential (emotions, visions, or trances) aspects. The postmodern position stresses the unstable and ambiguous nature of religion.

Paul Tillich’s Definition

A popular definition is one that was proposed by theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), which is that religion is that which offers answers to questions of “an ultimate concern” and “being grasped by an ultimate concern.” As such Christianity, Raelianism, and Buddhism can all, despite their differences, be considered religions. For Christians, an ultimate concern might be sin and salvation whereas for Raelians it is about achieving immortality through human cloning. Equally, Buddhists might share an ultimate concern for how to apply the eightfold path in order to attain nirvana. Further, Tillich’s notion that religion is also about being “grasped” by an ultimate concern takes into account the religious experience of some greater force or power that takes hold of persons, which provides them with a perspective on what is most valuable and meaningful in existence. Although this is a popular definition it is not without its criticisms. Some have argued that it is too broad in light of the fact that it might also include phenomena not commonly associated with religion. For example, an ultimate concern for a mother might be the wellbeing of her children, but we would probably not call that a religion. Sport, for some diehard fans, might be experienced as “being grasped by an ultimate concern”, but few would refer to this as religion. Rodrigues and Harding explain tha,

“Although we might speak of a person “following Marxism with religious zeal,” or say “money is his religion,” we do tend to make distinctions between religion and, say, politics or art, which might elicit similar behaviors but strike many of us as somehow different” (3).

Rodrigues and Harding’s Two Components of Religion

Rodrigues and Harding suggest that a defining feature of religion, which can be taken to separate what we perceive as religion from other meaningful and absorbing activities, is its concern with powers or agents that are regarded as mostly existing beyond the grasp of the five senses or instrumental apparatus (4). Such would involve gods, goddesses, spirits, or energies that are “supernatural”, in that they are believed to transcend the natural world or are beyond it. Rodrigues and Harding add a second important component, and that is that the religious reality is regarded as somehow apart. Religious reality is ascribed a special character and is viewed as holy or sacred. Approaching such a reality needs to be conducted appropriately and is done so in a way that is clearly differentiated from actions and attitudes made toward non-sacred aspects of reality. For example, a specific piece of land or a building might be considered sacred for members of one religious tradition because it has great significance. It might be that a prophet visited that spot and received a special revelation there. For some religionists, that piece of land is worth fighting and even killing for, whereas to non-believers it is just a piece of real estate.

Ninian Smart and Circumnavigating a Definition

The influential phenomenologist of religion, Ninian Smart, proposed a scheme that is popular within Religion Studies. In his extensive text The World’s Religions (1992) he articulated seven dimensions or categories of religion: the Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Institutional, and Material. He proposed these to capture the plurality and diversity of religion as well as those phenomena which we commonly associate with religion itself. “The point of the list”, wrote Smart, “is so that we can give a balanced description of the movements which have animated the human spirit and taken a place in the shaping of society, without neglecting either ideas or practices” (5).

What is helpful in Smart’s approach is that it allows scholars to circumnavigate the need of having to settle upon an agreed definition of religion before beginning their academic pursuits. Smart is confident that if his seven dimensions are adequate descriptions then it means that one “need not worry greatly about further definition of religion.” Indeed Smart evidently did not worry as what follows is a lengthy phenomenological analysis of a multitude of religious traditions through an application of these dimensions. What could receive some criticism is that the seven dimensions can be applied to secular ideologies many would not view as religions or religious. In fact, Smart is open on this and even includes a section in which he applies his dimensions to nationalism and communism. Although some might view the likes of nationalism and political ideologies as religions, others are less inclined to agree.

Additional Definitions of Religion

HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (1995), edited by prominent religion scholar Jonathan Z. Smith, defines religion as follows,

One may clarify the term religion by defining it as a system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings. This definition moves away from defining religion as some special kind of experience or worldview. It emphasizes that religions are systems or structures consisting of specific kinds of beliefs and practices: beliefs and practices that are related to superhuman beings. Superhuman beings are beings who can do things ordinary mortals cannot do. They are known for their miraculous deeds and powers that set them apart from humans. They can be either male or female, or androgynous. They need not be gods or goddesses, but may take on the form of an ancestor who can affect lives. They make take the form of benevolent or malevolent spirits who cause good or harm to a person or community. Furthermore, the definition requires that such superhuman beings be specifically related to beliefs and practices, myths and rituals” (6).

Smith provides a careful definition that seems to be quite inclusive. By including ancestors along with gods and goddesses it allows us to hold humanistic religions such as Daoism with overtly supernatural and transcendentally oriented religions such as Hinduism or paganism. What else could be included depends on one’s concept of “superhuman.”

However, Smith’s notion of superhuman could be of concern as he defines it as a being known for his or her miraculous deeds and powers. However, some founders such as Confucius were not thought to have been wielders of supernatural powers, prior to the advent of neo-Confucianism well over a millennium later. Would this suggest that on Smith’s definition we would have to demiss Confucianism as a religion? Is it also appropriate to hold overtly supernatural beings such as God, spirits, and gods as superhuman entities? That is debatable. A final concern is that Smith downplays the importance of the experiential dimension of religion. Most of what we receive from his definition is what humans believe in and not what they experience. A number of scholars would think it is important to include or emphasize the experiential dimension in a definition.

Winston King in The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) provides the following experiential definition:

“In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimension of experience—varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture” (7).

Although King stresses the experiential component of religion his definition could be underplaying the role of supernatural and/or superhuman beings. He does mention that religion provides the devotee with some form of “ultimacy and transcendence” but what this is would need some definition itself.

The influential and often cited anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw religion as,

“[1] a system of symbols which acts to [2] establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by [3] formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and [4] clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that [5] the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (8).

This is an important definition because many scholars believe that symbols and symbology play an important role in religious worldviews. On Geertz’ view, religion consists of symbols that function as bearers of meaning, which can be meaning connected to an object, event, quality, or relation. Examples could include a number (such as the number 6), a painting (that conveys meaning), a word (i.e. “God,” “reality,” “man”), a holy book (Bible, Torah, Book of Radiance, etc.), a story (a creation story), or a ritual (the Eucharist or meditation). Symbols are typically public, observable, concrete embodiment of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs. In Zen Buddhism, symbols would include the Lotus Sutra, a temple, a stone garden, etc. Sacred symbols also establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. In other words, they are powerful because they invoke deep moral sentiments, shape human behaviour, and influence how persons interpret reality. Religions clothe their conceptions in an “aura of factuality” by making their conceptions of reality appear true by presenting them in an appealing and persuasive way. Here symbols seem intensely real and factual to believers within the religious tradition although to non-believers or outsiders the symbols can appear to be mythological.

Despite the popularity of this definition, it is not without criticism. Much of his definition fails to distinguish religion from non-religious phenomena. For example, non-religious phenomena, including philosophy, social ideologies, politics, and more, also contain systems of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (and women). They too clothe their conceptions with an aura of factuality. A socialist’s worldview and philosophy, for example, encompasses symbols (the symbol of a factory owned by capitalist symbolizing capitalism’s exploitation of the working class) that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. Certainly, Karl Marx was emotionally invested in his socialist theory, which he too clothed with an aura of factuality. Writing for the Academy of Religion, W. Richard Comstock suggests that “Even the representations of art and literature have an “aura of factuality” about them, though they make no ontological claims. The proposal would seem to have little to commend it when taken as an essential definition” (6). For Comstock, the best Geertz’ definition does is to refer to religion as “a system of symbols”, but this itself does not provide a succinct definition capturing the essential feature that determines what religion is.

The pragmatist William James was of the view that religion,

… Shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, as far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either more, physical, or ritual, it is evidence that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow” (9).

A strength to James’ definition is in the subjectivity he ascribes to religion where devotees  “stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Indeed devotees across countless religious traditions consider countless phenomena divine. These can include angels, spirits, God, gods, goddesses, ancestors, bodhisattvas, and even inanimate objects such as rocks and trees in some animistic religions like Shinto. However, what constitutes “divine” is not easy to assume and needs definition. Further, James seems to neglect the social dimension to religion. Most scholars of religion are convinced that religion is more than just “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men [and women] in their solitude”. The sociologist Emile Durkheim has left a long-lasting impression in religion scholarship for noting what to many is obvious, which is that religion has its power and influence in social forces produced by devotees gathering together and acting as a collective.


1. Rodrigues, Hillary., and Harding, John. 2008. Introduction to the Study of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 4.

2. Olson, Carl. 2011. Religious Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge. p. 11-12.

3. Rodrigues, Hillary., and Harding, John. 2008. Ibid. p. 2.

4. Rodrigues, Hillary., and Harding, John. 2008. Ibid. p. 3.

5. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 21.

6. Smith, Jonathan Z. 1995. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 893.

7. King. Winston, 1987. Encyclopedia of Religion. p 7693.

8. Geertz, Clifford. 1993. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 87-125. Fontana Press. p. 90.

9. James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longmans, Green & Co. p. 31.


  1. […] Although this definition is sufficient, a criticism is that it fails to be sufficiently discriminatory. A secular symbol, such as symbols within sports or food symbols, can qualify as “sacred” on this definition. To a contemporary diehard fan, a football team and brand can represent commit and the will to overcome challenges, as it is was for fans a century ago. Certainly this too produces an intense type of energy for sports fans who themselves wish to claim legitimacy for their preferred players and so on. Equally, the intrinsic “sacredness” of a team symbols is not intrinsic but has been superimposed upon it by fans. Unless one is willing to consider sports as akin to religion and sacred symbols, these aforementioned definitions raise the same difficulties that have confronted definitions of religion. […]

  2. […] Definitions of religion have been several and none of them have obtained consensus within the scholarship of religion. Some scholars, such as Ninian Smart, have proposed looking to the manifest features of religion, such as in his seven dimensions (Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Institutional, Material) of religion rather than necessarily having to agree to a commonly accepted definition (7). […]

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