Participants in whatever is obviously a religion already have their own terms and definitions, and this would be one place to begin research. This is the emic perspective, that of the local society or community, and it often coincides with the ethnographic or fieldwork approach. However, a universal definition, or at least one that is generally valid cross-culturally, is desirable for comparative purposes, the etic perspective (Western scientific) and ethnological approach. Yet, curiously, such a definition has long been remarkably elusive, anything proposed being subjected to critical scrutiny and found defective or deficient in one or more ways (see Blasi 1998, Flood 1999, Klass 1995, Saler 1977, 1993). Indeed, many standard textbooks on religion do not even wrestle with the problem of definition (e.g., Matthews 1999), and some resort to just listing a set of more or less shared characteristics instead (e.g., Molloy 1999, Smart 1996).

Definitions from Anthropologists

Here is a sample of some of the more important anthropological attempts at defining religion.

Edward B. Tylor in defining religion as "the belief in spiritual beings" provides a minimal cross-cultural definition, but it begs the question of what is spiritual (cf. King 1996 and Turner 1992).

Emile Durkheim's (1912/1965:62) classic definition is that "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set aside and forbidden--- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."

Paul Radin (1957:3) describes religion as follows: "We may safely insist, however, that it consists of two parts: the first an easily definable, if not precisely specific feeling; and the second certain acts, customs, beliefs, and conceptions associated with this feeling. The belief most inextricably connected with the specific feeling is a belief in spirits outside of man, conceived of as more powerful than man and as contrlling all those elements in life upon which he lays most stress."

Melford E. Spiro (1971:96) defines religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings."

Edward Norbeck (1961:11) states that: "The least constricting terms our vocabulary provides to enable us to set off the realm of religion from the rest of culture are the natural and the supernatural. Most if not all peoples make some sort of distinction between the objects, beliefs, and events of the everyday, workaday, ordinary world and those which transcend the ordinary world. Using this distinction, as others have done, we shall define religion as ideas, attitudes, creeds and acts of supernaturalism." He goes on to describe the supernatural: "By `supernaturalism' we mean to include all that is not natural, that which is regarded as extraordinary, not of the ordinary world, mysterious, and unexplained or unexplainable in ordinary terms. Being extraordinary, mysterious, and unknown or unexplainable in terms of natural or ordinary things or events of the world, the supernatural may evoke various other attitudes. It may be associated with awe, veneration, wonder, or fear. A common denominator in subjective states which the supernatural evokes is an attitude of apartness from the mundane" (Norbeck, p. 11). (For more extensive discussions on the sacred and related phenomena see Eliade 1957 and Otto 1923).

Clifford Geertz (1971:4) provides the classic contemporary definition: "...a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting motivations in men by (3) forumlating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely." (See Frankenberry and Penner 1999 for a critical analysis of Geertz's ideas on religion as a cultural or symbolic system).

Morton Klass (1995:Chs. 3-5) wrestles with the definition and clarification of religion and related terms in anthropology. He develops this operational definition: "Religion in a given society will be that instituted process of interaction among the members of that society--- and between them and the universe at large as they conceive it to be constituted--- which provides them with meaning, coherence, direction, unity, easement, and whatever degree of control over events they perceive as possible" (p. 38).

Arthur C. Lehman and James E. Myers (2001:3), editors of a popular anthology on the anthropology of religion, approach the subject this way: "Expanding the definition of religion beyond spiritual and superhuman beings to include the extraordinary, the mysterious, and unexplainable allows a more comprehensive view of religious behaviors among peoples of the world and permits the anthropological investigation of phenomena such as magic, sorcery, curses, and other practices that hold meaning for both preliterate and literate societies."

Characterizations from Comparative Religionists

Beyond anthropology, Ninian Smart (1996), a student of comparative religion, identifies these dimensions of religion: pactical and ritual, doctrinal and philosophy, narrative and mythic, experiential and emotional, ethical and legal, social and institutional, material and artistic, and political and economic.

Another student of comparative religion, Michael Molloy (1999:6-7), asserts that a reasonable number of these elements should be present to identify a religion: worldview or belief system, community, ethics, characteristic emotions, ritual, and sacredness. He notes that the ideals and values in the belief system are shared by a group of people; the characteristic emotions variously include dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, and/or bliss; the beliefs are enacted and made real through ceremonies, ritual objects, and specialized buildings or locations (sacred places); and sacredness is distinguished from the ordinary or profane. This distinctiveness may include different language, behavior, clothing, objects, architecture, and places.


Religionists (students of religion), anthropologists and others, differ on what they include and emphasize in their definition of religion. Geertz and Klass, for example, appear to be exceptional in dropping reference to phenomena such as the divine, holy, sacred, spiritual, or supernatural. Geertz's definition tends to reduce religion to a system of powerful symbols, while Klass' definition tends to reduce religion to a social institution. Some critics would view the omission of the spiritual, sacred, or supernatural as missing the whole point of religion! To some extent, this reductionism may reflect the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological problems inherent in an individual from one belief system (Western science or scientism) applying it to the study of another belief system (a religion), with the implicit judgement a priori that the latter is false or fictitious, a point recognized by Klass (1995:4, 73, 124, 149, 152). (Also see King 1996, Smith 2001, and Turner 1992).

Some postmodern revisionists have challenged ideas such as sacred, supernatural, and even religion as Western ethnocentric impositions on other societies and cultures. For example, a statement by Jacob Pandian (2002:11) is worth quoting at length: "A less-known and unrecognized use of a Western indigenous term that has been gloablized or universalized by Western scholarship is the concept of "religion." Originally a Roman/Latin concept, religion (religio in Latin) acquired significance in Christian theology. By the 17th century, it became a Western root metaphor for comprehending and conceptualizing dichotomies and antinomies such as rationality (self)/irrationality (other), civilization (West)/primitive (non-West), truth (Christianity)/untruth (pagan), god (Jesus)/devil (Satan) and church (holiness)/withcraft (evil).... As in the concept of race, the concept of religion was transformed into an etic category in the 17th century, and anthropologists and others have been defining the concept in different ways, corresponding to the needs and concerns of the Western tradition of particular periods up to the present." Pandian then suggests that the solution is to substitute "supernaturalism" for "religion." However, Benson Saler (1977, 1993) argues that the supernatural is also a Western category.

Similarly, Fiona Bowie (2000:22), author of one of the most recent textbooks on the anthropology of religion, cautions: "When we come to look at various definitions of religion, we need to remember that we are constructing a category ("religion") based upon European languages and cultures, and that the term has no necessary equivalent in other parts of the world." Also Gavin Flood (1999:64) observes that: "Explanations or research programmes are always embedded within a particular social context and the inquirer is always in a dialogical relationship with the material at hand. In this sense explanations are inevitably interpretations based on different epistemological assumptions, themselves provided by the wider research culture."

Apparently religion is in the eye of the beholder, whether the latter is a student of and/or active participant in a religion. Some argue that the final authority in the definition of something as a religion lies with its adherents, both leaders and followers. But what happens when the adherents to a religion are exclusionists, believing that their religion alone has a monopoly on absolute truth and morality? That would suggest that an etic, ethnological, cross-cultural approach to defining religion is more appropriate for scholarly and scientific purposes at least.


Apparently there is no general consensus among anthropologists and other students of religion on the definition of religion, despite more than a century of study, discussion, and debate about religion in comparative perspective. Perhaps the best one can do is to develop a working definition to test and progressively rework against one's own personal experience and/or field observations with one or more religions. Furthermore, in the final analysis it should be realized that a definition is only a means to the end of facilitating study and understanding, not an end in itself. Still, wrestling with terms and definitions may facilitate understanding as Klass (1995) argues.


References Cited

Blasi, Anthony J., 1998, "Definition of Religion," in Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Jr., ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 129-133.

Bowie, Fiona, 2000, The Anthropology of Religion, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Durkheim, Emile, 1912/1965, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York, NY: The Free Press.

Eliade, Mircea, 1957, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co.

Flood, Gavin, 1999, "The Idea of `Religion'" in his Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion, New York, NY: Cassel, pp. 42-64.

Frankenberry, Nancy K., and Hans H. Penner, 1999 (October), "Clifford Geertz's Long-Lasting Moods, Motivations, and Metaphorical Conceptions," Journal of Religion 79(4):617-640.

Geertz, Clifford, 1971, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, M. Banton, ed., London, England: Tavistock Publications, pp. 1-46.

King, Anna S., 1996, "Spirituality: Transformation and Metamorphosis," Religion 26(4):343-351.

Klass, Morton, 1995, Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Lehmann, Arthur C., and James E. Myers, 2001, Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Matthews, Warren, 1999, World Religions, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Molloy, Michael, 1999, Experiencing the World's Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., pp. 6-7

Norbeck, Edward, 1961, Religion in Primitive Society, New York, NY: Harper & Row, p. 11.

Otto, Rudolph, 1923, The Idea of the Holy, London, England: Oxford University Press).

Pandian, Jacob, 2002 (April), "Anthropology and the Invention of Religion," American Anthropological Association Anthropology News 43(4):11.

Radin, Paul, 1937/1957, Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin, New York, NY: Dover.

Saler, Benson, 1977 (Spring), "Supernatural as a Western Category," Ethos 5(1):31-53.

Saler, Benson, 1993, Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbound Categories, New York, NY: E.J. Brill.

Smart, Ninian, 1996, Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Smith, Huston, 2001, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers.

Spiro, Melford E., 1971, "Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, M. Banton, ed., London, England: Tavistock Publications, pp. 85-126.

Turner, Edith, 1992 (Summer), "The Reality of Spirits," ReVision 15(1):28-32.

Tylor, Edward B., (1871) Religion in Primitive Society, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.