What is religion?

The problems in seeking to define religion

The universality of religion

No matter how educated, materialistic or secular Western society becomes, ‘religious’ questions just don’t go away. We appear to be incurably inquisitive about realities deeper than our investments, our holidays and our retirement packages. It’s as if something in our world or perhaps just in our heads continues to seduce us with questions of faith—Why are we here? What happens at death? To Whom should I pay homage?, and so on.

The social sciences confirm this impression. While we often hear of the decline in religion, the research reveals an enduring belief in both God and the soul. The World Values Survey conducted by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (Ronald Inglehart et al., published 2000) revealed the following figures for Australia:

  Belief in god: 80.1%
Belief in ‘soul’: 85.3%
Atheist: 5.3%

As we gaze down the immense corridor of centuries of historical research, it is no exaggeration to say that every single society, about which anthropologists and historians know anything significant, has made ‘religion’ a key component of its cultural life. Australian Aborigines, native Americans, pre-Anglo Celts, Germanic Goths, ancient Mongols and modern Westerners, Easterners, Middle Easterners Africans—all of them have been conspicuously ‘religious’.

Even the little we know about Neanderthal man, an early form of Homo sapiens (100,000—30,000 years ago) suggests a religious dimension and a belief in an afterlife: the smearing of bones with red ocher is thought by many to symbolize life-giving blood and revived flesh; the burial of the dead with animal bones and an axe may suggest a hope of a productive afterlife.

religious questions are among the few universally shared premises of humanity throughout time. It is common sense

The famous prehistoric paintings in the South of France (Lascaux: dated 15,000 BC) depict not only buffalo and deer but also strange symbols which scholars recognize as early shamanistic symbols, that is, symbols associated with a shaman or ‘wise man’ who performs magic and is able to communicate with the spirit world.

Religious talk is, in the truest meaning of the phrase, ‘common sense.’ Like the human fascination with art and music, or our desire for social organisation and personal intimacy, religious questions are among the few universally shared premises of humanity throughout time. It is common sense.

Despite its ubiquity, religion is very difficult to define. Amongst philosophers of religion there is no universally accepted definition.

Studying the origin of the word tells us very little. Even the Oxford English Reference Dictionary flounders:



  1. the belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship;
  2. the expression of this in worship;
  3. a particular system of faith and worship.

There at least two reasons for this definitional difficulty: (1) Many significant abstract concepts defy precise definition—love, mind, science, art; (2) The vast differences between the things termed ‘religion’ make the definition very elusive (compare aboriginal reverence for the earth and for ancestors with Buddhist atheism with Islamic theism).

Scholars have offered many definitions of religion over the years. The following examples touch the tip of the iceberg.

Theistic definition

Religion may be defined in terms of belief in and/or worship of a god or gods. James Martineau (19th century English philosopher 1805-1900) wrote:

  Religion is the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind.   

Such a definition certainly embraces clearly theistic religions like Judaism and Islam, but it has more difficulty with monistic religions (some forms of Hinduism) and non-theistic ones like Theravada Buddhism.

Supernatural definition

Related to the theistic definition is what you might call simply a supernatural definition. Here, religion is said to be characterized by beings that transcend physical reality. The Canadian-born American anthropologist Anthony Wallace (Religion: an Anthropological View. New York: Random House, 1966, 52) writes:

  It is the premise of every religion—and this premise is religion’s defining characteristic—that souls, supernatural beings, and supernatural forces exist.   

On this definition, again, Theravada Buddhism, with its denial of the soul and deities, would have to be excluded. As well as excluding one of the major religions of the world, a supernatural definition of religion would probably unwittingly include many other human beliefs and practices not generally classed as religion—magic, astrology, necromancy and so on.

Sacral definition

Religion is reverence and awe toward something deemed to be ‘sacred’. Cornelius Petrus Tiele (1830-1902), a pioneer in the comparative study of religion said:

  Religion is, in truth, that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety.   

There is a problem, of course, with defining religion in terms of the word ‘sacred’ or ‘piety’. These terms generally take their meaning from the thing we’re trying to define in the first place: ‘religion’. There is, then, a circularity to this definition.

Bifurcation definition

‘Bifurcation’ is the division of something into two branches or parts. In a religious context we could talk about the division between temporal and eternal, spiritual and material, empirical and supra-empirical, sacred and secular, and so on. A bifurcation definition of religion is one that sees religion as primarily concerned with describing and regulating this distinction between sacred and profane. Hence, the sociologist Michael Hill of the London School of Economics writes:

  religion can be defined as the set of beliefs which postulate and seek to regulate the distinction between an empirical reality and a related and significant supra-empirical segment of reality; the language and symbols which are used in relation to this distinction; and the activities and institutions which are concerned with its regulation (A Sociology of Religion. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973, 42-43).  

One criticism of this definition is that many of the religions of the world would reject the distinction between sacred and secular, spiritual and material, and so on. A definition of religion that ignores a basic premise of many of the actual religions is always going to be problematic to many.

Ontological (Greek. ontos ‘being’) definition

The fundamental nature of reality gives shape to a set of ideas and practices. Hence, Michael Peterson of Asbury College in the U.S. writes:

  Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions and emotions, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality.  

This definition has received wide approval. However, some have criticized it on the grounds that ‘atheism’ or ‘science’ could be described as a religion on this wording. Science, after all, has beliefs about ultimate reality and these things in some measure organize the beliefs, actions and emotions of many scientists.

Ontological imperative definition

A modified version of Michael Peterson’s ontological definition might avoid this particular criticism, however. We might revise the definition and call it the ontological imperative definition of religion. This is similar to the Ontological definition with one significant difference. The fundamental nature of things is thought not only to organize beliefs, habits, etc., but to make them necessary or obligatory. Reality impinges upon human life, calls on it to conform to that reality. Hence, to give you a revised definition:

  Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions and emotions, both personal and corporate, deemed necessary on account of some concept of an Ultimate Reality.  

There are I think four important elements to this definition:

  1. Religions make claims about ultimate reality or the nature of existence. This may take a theistic form (Islam), a philosophical form (Buddhism), or a mythical form (Aboriginal Dreaming concerning the land and ancestors).
  2. Religion entails a ‘set’ of beliefs and actions. That is, it produces a pattern or shape of conduct and thought governed by its claims about ultimate reality. Hence, religious life is coherent within the worldview of the adherent. It does not involve a random set of rules and dogmas; it rather offers practices and habits that are connected both to each other and to ultimate reality. Hence, Aboriginal religion has a set of beliefs and actions—reverencing the earth, honoring ancestors and regulating community life, all based on a concept of the fundamental nature of things. Again, Buddhism produces a pattern of life characterised by tranquility and peace, the regular practice of meditation, and so on.
  3. This way of life, as I’ve just said, is deemed necessary. Here, then, the root meaning of the word ‘religion’ (obligation, bound) is given some weight in the definition. This would probably rule out some of the secular ‘isms’ which are often compared to religion. Science probably wouldn’t be defined as a religion in these terms because scientists, even committed atheistic materialists among them, would not regard their view of ultimate reality as in any way binding on human beings.
  4. I think Michael Peterson’s inclusion of the ‘corporate’ dimension of religion is important. Religion is more than the views and actions of individuals; it involves community. It entails some degree of connectedness with other adherents—a shared vision, a degree of accountability and mutual care—all of course premised on the concept of Ultimate Reality which is thought to impinge on human life.

Descriptive definition

Sometimes religion is defined by the characteristics that are shared by all the religions. Here one seeks to uncover the common denominators in the world’s Faiths; these common traits are then said to provide the substance of our definition. Hence, Ninian Smart (of the universities of Lancaster and California, Santa Barbara) argues that seven shared characteristics describe religion at its core: mythic (stories that give shape), doctrinal (the themes and ideas that underpin and emerge from the myths), experiential (the encounter in prayer or meditation with some larger reality), ethical ( the moral or legal requirements), ritual (the formalized habits, whether prayers, liturgies, dances, prostrations), social (the organizational structures and leadership), and material (the artifacts left by adherents, church buildings, art, statues, etc.).  

Sociologist Keith Roberts offers a similarly descriptive definition revised slightly in the direction of the ontological definition. For Roberts,

  Beyond being just a social phenomenon, religion has to do with that assortment of phenomena that communicates, celebrates, internalizes, interprets, and extrapolates a faith. The phenomena include beliefs (myths), rites (worship), an ethos (moods and moral values of the group), a worldview (the cognitive perspective by which the experiences of life are viewed as part of a larger and ultimately meaningful cosmology), and a system of symbols (which serve to encapsulate the deepest feelings and emotion-packed beliefs).   

You can see in this definition many similarities with Ninian Smart’s analysis of what constitutes religion. Questions have been raised about such descriptive definitions, particularly with respect to the ritual, material and symbolic aspects of the definition. Many forms of Protestant Christianity, for instance, are self-consciously lacking in rites, symbols and materials.

Paradigm case definition

Charles Taliaferro (Prof. of Philosophy St. Olaf College Northfield Minnesota, U.S., Lutheran University) in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion argues that a definition of religion is so elusive that one must embrace what is called a ‘paradigm case definition’ wherein an object is defined by particular examples of the object and by things that resemble those objects. So, he insists:

  Religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and those traditions that resemble one or more of them (21).  

This definition demarcates religion simply by appealing to the examples commonly accepted to be religions. Such a definition thus provides the main ‘terrain’ of study (the five major religions) while offering the flexibility required in a field as diverse as this one (including any system of thought that ‘resembles’ one or more of the religions).

One thing becomes clear as we explore how philosophers of religion have attempted to define the subject of their specialty: religion eludes exact definition. Like love, art or consciousness itself, religion is a feature of human existence that defies definition. Such realities stand over us and within us to such a degree that objective analysis is perhaps impossible. And, yet, when one is truly touched by love, art or religion, one knows it. It is a thing to be experienced as much as assessed.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)