The New Functional Definition of Religion

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics. Its goals are to teach people how to live and to provide them with structure, a code of conduct and a sense of purpose. It also offers them the hope of an afterlife. Although it is often criticized for the damage it has done in human history, most organized religions remain powerful and influential.

Since the early days of human evolution, individuals have wondered where they came from, why they’re here and what it all means. While it is not always successful, religion provides followers with a framework for answering those questions and for creating a meaningful life. It is a key factor in social cohesion and can act as a source of inspiration, enlightenment, moral courage, and support. It can also provide believers with a unified identity and a community of fellow followers.

Traditionally, the term religion has been defined by its belief in a supernatural entity or set of entities. This “substantive” definition is still prevalent, but others have challenged it. One such argument was made by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871. He argued that narrowing the definition of religion to include only those systems of practices that believe in a god or gods, a spirit world and judgment after death would exclude many groups from its scope and that a better way to define it was to use a functional rather than a real or lexical definition (see below).

The “functional” definition of religion is that it includes all forms of life that have the capacity to bring together a group of people into a single moral community regardless of whether they involve a belief in any unusual kinds of realities. It was this definition that Emile Durkheim used in his 1912 study on religion. This view was also popularized by Talal Asad in his Genealogies of Religion (1993).

For this approach, the definition of religion is not so much what a person believes as how they behave and how they organize themselves. It is also different from the “real” or lexical definition in that it is not based on hidden mental states and moods but rather on visible institutions and practices.

The consequence of this view is that it removes any ambiguity over what is or is not religion. The question that remains is what this new, functional definition looks like in practice and how well it works. The most important thing is that it allows us to move away from the thorny issue of the nature of religious experience and toward an understanding of the ways in which religions function in human societies. This is a profoundly difficult task, however, because it requires an unpopular and challenging revision of existing theory. It is a challenge that will be vigorously resisted by some. This is especially true of those who wish to maintain the status quo of their own religions. Nevertheless, it is important for the sake of humanity’s future.

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