The Definition of Religion

Religion is a unified system of beliefs and feelings that gives members of a group a single object or objects of worship, a person they believe to be invested with spiritual or moral authority, a code of behavior that guides the conduct of individuals and groups, and a set of values that guide life. It deals with issues about life and death, about the nature of human beings and the natural world; and it often concerns forces and powers that are beyond the control of humans.

Attempts to formulate an adequate definition of religion are difficult. A univocal concept would be doomed to a lowest common denominator, and the discipline of comparative studies requires the comparison of different historical materials in order to discover a set of concepts that can adequately describe them.

A common approach has been to define religion functionally, as the beliefs and practices that generate social solidarity or that provide a person with orientation in his or her life. This approach has produced a variety of definitions, among which are those of Durkheim and Tillich.

Another way to approach the study of religion is through the phenomenological method, and this has produced some of the most interesting and insightful work on the subject. One can see this in the work of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Luce Irigaray. However, a phenomenological approach is not without its problems. In particular, the fact that it is a subjective method may discourage scholars from taking religious matters seriously.

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