Functional Definitions of Religion


Religion is a social taxon that encompasses many practices and beliefs. Traditionally, scholars have classified these forms of life into categories such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. These are “substantive” definitions, in that they base membership in a religious category on belief in a distinctive kind of reality. But in the twentieth century, a new approach to the concept of religion has appeared. It drops the substantive element and defines religion in terms of a distinctive function that a form of life can serve, such as creating solidarity, providing psychological well-being, or offering guidance in times of crisis.

Sociologists and anthropologists typically use such functional definitions. They tend to emphasize that religious behavior may involve beliefs in unusual realities or a higher power, but that this is not necessarily true of all forms of religiosity. They also point out that religion serves several other functions that are not directly related to belief in supernatural beings or a higher power. These functions include the fostering of moral values, such as adherence to ethical guidelines; the creation of a sense of community; and an inclination to support progressive causes, such as the abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights Movement.

In addition to these functions, religion often fosters a belief in some doctrines that are unlikely to be true, such as the Virgin Birth or miracle cures. This, of course, can cause problems, such as when religious people refuse medical treatment that would save their lives.