The New Functional Definition of Religion


The word religion is an abstract term that anthropologists, sociologists, and historians use to sort out different types of cultural practices. It has been defined in many ways: as the belief that there is one god, as the beliefs and practices that help to unite a community into a moral society, or as any set of rituals that serve as an outlet for people’s desire to find meaning in their lives. These definitions share one thing in common; they all describe belief in a unique kind of reality.

A more recent trend in social science is to define religion by dropping the substantive element, and defining it as whatever set of beliefs and practices serves as an outlet for people’s desire to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. This approach, which was first popularized by Emile Durkheim in 1912, has been called a functional definition. While it has gained in popularity, this new view of religion raises two issues that should be kept in mind.

The main issue is whether this functional definition of religion can truly capture the essence of what people experience when they follow their faith. The second issue is the possibility that this concept of religion will end up obscuring the real differences between various religions and the way that they are practised.

There is no doubt that religions make a powerful imprint on culture, and this can be seen in the way that they are celebrated, such as on special days, in feasts, marriage ceremonies, burial practices, pilgrimages, and the wearing of certain kinds of clothes or jewellery. Religions also have a profound influence on politics, as the actions and ideas that are promoted by them often have an impact on public policy and on political leaders.

Scientists who study religion and spirituality are also increasingly aware of the positive effect that regular religious practice has on health. In particular, research is beginning to show that religious believers tend to have lower rates of depression and anxiety than non-religious people. This is because people who practise their religion regularly tend to have a support network of like-minded individuals who can offer them emotional and practical assistance.

Some scholars, however, are concerned that this approach will obscure the fact that there is actually a great deal of diversity within religions. These concerns are most clearly articulated in the book Genealogies of Religion (1993) by Talal Asad, which uses Michel Foucault’s genealogical method to demonstrate that the concept of religion as a useful category for social analysis has been constructed from assumptions that are both Christian (insofar as it treats belief as an inner state characteristic of all religions) and modern (insofar as it treats religious beliefs as a separate form of politics). It is these assumptions that have led some scholars to question whether it is appropriate to talk about the “essence” of religion as a meaningful concept at all.