How to Define Religion

Religion is one of the most complex and controversial topics in the social studies. It’s important for students to be exposed to resources that teach about all the different religions in the world. This can help students develop their understanding of the world’s cultures and history.

As the semantic range of the concept has expanded to include more practices that were once considered to be religious, philosophers have struggled with how to understand this contested category. While most efforts to define the term have been monothetic in nature—that is, they operate on the classical assumption that there will be a single property or set of properties found in all instances that accurately describe the concept—the last several decades have seen the emergence of more polythetic approaches to religion.

The most well-known of these is Emile Durkheim’s (1894-1912) definition of religion as any system that unites a group of people in a moral community. This version is often criticized as being too vague or broad, but it does offer an important point: that the concept of religion is a social taxon that sorts groups into mutually supportive social communities.

Other scholars, however, have pushed back against the notion that a substantive definition of religion is possible. They argue that to treat a particular practice as a religion depends on whether it produces mental states or other inner states that are perceived to be spiritually meaningful. For this reason, they argue that it is important to study the structure of religious communities rather than focus on their beliefs and experiences.