What is Religion?: Problems in Definition


In the academic study of religion, there is 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.

This article notes why this is the case within scholarship and examines the strengths and weaknesses of several popular definitions. This article does not propose to solve the problem of definition or propose any new definitions.

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

“[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).

An Inclusive Definition of Religion

Most people have an idea of what religion is even if they cannot actually define religion itself. Often this is by association with what religious persons do. It takes little for one to realize that such things as churches and mosques, prayers and preaching, spirits and gods, holidays such as Ramadan and Diwali, and priests and monks are religious phenomena. These have an integral role in the religious lives of many people in society. And although such associations capture real aspects of religion, for scholars it is too narrow.

If belief in God is what religion is then that does away with religious traditions like Daoism, Confucianism, and Theravada Buddhism that place little emphasis on God or gods. If religion is belief in a single creator God, as held by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims, then it leaves unaccounted various forms of paganism and new religious movements 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, mosques, temples, or synagogues then it leaves no place for digital and fantasy-inspired religions which exist only in the online domain. If religion is belief in the supernatural then Satanism and Raelianism, both atheistic religions, do not qualify.

These observations show the difficulty for scholars who try to provide an inclusive definition of religion. This difficulty has led some, such as the comparative scholar of religion Wilfred Cantrell Smith (1916-2000), to argue that scholars should abandon the term “religion” altogether and replace it with “faith”. Smith’s proposition, however, inevitably gives rise to the same problems just observed. It is not immediately apparent how faith applies to aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, etc.

Categories of Definitions

A purview of the academic literature suggests that definitions of religion fall into five general types: experiential, substantive, functionalist, family resemblance, and postmodern (2).

An experiential definition isolates a primary religious experience and then constructs a theory around it. German theologian Rudolf Otto’s concept of the Holy or Numinous is a good example.

A substantive definition identifies a central belief as the basis of a definition. This might include belief in spiritual beings and/or supernatural reality.

The functionalist definition focuses on how religion operates within 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 behavior, 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 was proposed by theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), which views religion as 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 many 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. Buddhists share an ultimate concern in attaining nirvana through an appropriate application of the eightfold path. 

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 the person. This power provides the person with a perspective on what is most valuable and meaningful about human existence.

Tillich’s popular definition is not without criticism. Some argue that it is too broad because it can also include phenomena not commonly associated with religion. For example, an ultimate concern for a mother might be the well-being of her children but many would unlikely view this as religion. Sport for some fans might be experienced as “being grasped by an ultimate concern” but few would refer to this as religion. Rodrigues and Harding explain that,

“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 separates what one perceives as religion from other meaningful 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).

This involves gods, goddesses, spirits, or energies that are “supernatural” in that they transcend the natural world or exist beyond it. Rodrigues and Harding add a second important component, which is that religious reality is regarded as distinct and separate. Religious reality is given a special position that is viewed as holy or sacred. Approaching this reality needs to be performed appropriately and in a way that is differentiated from actions and attitudes made toward non-sacred aspects of reality. A specific piece of land or a building can be considered sacred for members of one religious tradition because it has significance for them. A prophet might have visited that land and received a special revelation there. For some, that piece of land is worth fighting for, whereas for non-believers it is just a piece of real estate.

This definition offered by Rodrigues and Harding faces the same challenges observed earlier because it places the supernatural as a central tenet of religion when many religions do not affirm a supernatural or transcendent reality populated by divine energies, gods, God, angels, or any other religious phenomena.

Ninian Smart and Circumnavigating a Definition

Scholar of religion Ninian Smart (1927-2001) proposed a template that is popular within the Study of Religion.

In The World’s Religions (1992), Smart articulates seven dimensions or categories of religion: the Doctrinal, Mythological, Ethical, Ritual, Experiential, Institutional, and Material. He maintains that these dimensions capture the plurality and diversity of religions and the phenomena commonly associated with religion itself. “The point of the list”, writes 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).

Helpful in Smart’s approach is that it circumnavigates the need of settling upon an agreed definition of religion. Smart says that this means the scholar “need not worry greatly about further definition of religion”. Smart proceeded to provide a phenomenological analysis of many religious traditions through the application of these dimensions.

Contentious is that the seven dimensions can be applied to secular ideologies many would not view as religion or religious. Smart acknowledges this and includes in his book a section in which he applies the dimensions to nationalism and communism.

Additional Definitions of Religion

As already stated, the definitions of religion are many and offered below are just several.

HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (1995), edited by 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) (emphasis added).

Smith provides a definition that seems inclusive because it includes the broad concept of superhuman beings and the beliefs attached to them. Superhuman beings include many phenomena some of which are identified in the definition (ancestors, god, goddesses, spirits, etc.). What else could be included depends on one’s concept of “superhuman”. It remains unclear if Smith would argue that superhuman beings can be found in humanistic and atheistic religions, some of which have been noted already.

Smith’s concept of the superhuman is contentious when as defines the superhuman agency as being known for his or her miraculous deeds and powers. Yet founders of some religions such as Confucius and Muhammad (570-632 CE) were not considered to have been wielders of supernatural powers. In the case of Confucius, this was not so until the advent of neo-Confucianism over a millennium later and for Muhammad until biographies were composed by two or so centuries after his traditional time of death.

Smith’s definition also appears to downplay the importance of the experiential aspect of religion as most of what his definition presents is what humans believe in and not what they experience. The tenet of practice and ritual, which is connected with the experiential, is tacked on in the final sentence of the definition.

Winston King in The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) provides the following,

“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) (emphasis added).

King strongly stresses the experiential component of religion. This is appropriate but he could possibly not be recognizing the role of supernatural and/or superhuman beings, which is commonly identified as essential in other definitions. He mentions that religion provides the individual with “ultimacy and transcendence”, although based on the definition itself this remains unclear. Is “ultimacy” something similar to Tillich’s notion of ultimate concern?

The frequently cited anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) viewed 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).

Many scholars believe that symbols have an important role in religious worldviews. In Geertz’s view, religion consists of symbols that function as bearers of meaning. This meaning is connected to an object, event, quality, or relation. Examples can include a number (such as the number 6), a painting (that conveys meaning), a word (i.e. “God,” “reality,” “man”), a holy book (Torah, Bible, Qur’an, etc.), a story (a creation story), or a ritual (the Eucharist or meditation).

Symbols are typically public, observable, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs. In Zen Buddhism, symbols include the Lotus Sutra, a temple, a stone garden, and so on.

Sacred symbols also establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. They are powerful because they invoke deep moral sentiments, shape human behavior, and influence how people 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. Symbols seem intensely real and factual to believers within the religious tradition although to non-believers the symbols can appear to be mythological.

Despite the popularity of this definition, it is also not without criticism. Much of the definition fails to distinguish religion from non-religious phenomena. For example, non-religious phenomena also contain systems of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (and women). These clothe their conceptions with an aura of factuality.

A socialist’s worldview encompasses symbols (e.g. the industrial factory in the possession of greedy capitalists symbolizing the exploitation of the impoverished working class) that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. Writing for the Academy of Religion, W. R. Comstock asserts 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 value of Geertz’s definition is its reference to religion as “a system of symbols”, although this itself does not provide a succinct definition capturing the essential feature that determines what religion is.

The pragmatist and psychologist William James (1842-1910) emphasized a subjective and emotional view of religion,

“[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 of James’ definition is its emphasis on the subjectivity of religion as devotees “stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”. The devout across countless religious traditions consider many phenomena divine, which, as noted already, can include angels, spirits, God, gods, goddesses, ancestors, bodhisattvas, and even inanimate objects such as rocks and trees in ‘animistic’ religions African traditional religions and Shinto.

But what constitutes “divine” is not easy to assume and requires definition. Further contentious is that James neglects or underplays the social dimension of religion. Religion is certainly more than “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men [and women] in their solitude”. The sociologist Emile Durkheim has left a long-lasting impression on religion scholarship by noting that religion has power at the societal level and influences in social forces through 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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