Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Groningen's online course, Religion and Conflict. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds What is religion? One of the briefest and most influential definitions of religion still is that of the 19th century anthropologist EB Tylor. “Religion is the belief in supernatural beings.” This comes very close to common-sense ideas of religion in most Western societies. People think that religion is something special, something that goes beyond the mundane, beyond science, to posit something outside the visible world that somehow gives meaning to it. If we would only have this mundane world, only have science, we still don’t know what it really means. And that’s why people turn to religion. That’s the thought.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds Like other scholars in the 19th century, Tylor assumed that all cultures across the world had some kind of belief in supernatural beings, and therefore some kind of religion. At the time, the framework of evolutionism was very influential within the social sciences– the idea that you could rank societies along a ladder of development, with Western civilisation at the top. In some of these models, monotheism was thought to be the highest form of religion. In others, science was thought to replace religion eventually. In the most primitive societies, a more primitive form of religion was thought to prevail, such as animism, the belief that every thing, every rock and stream, is imbued with spirit. This evolutionism has later been discredited.

Skip to 1 minute and 48 seconds All of these types of societies, after all, exist side by side, then and now. Each of them has a long history and may be extremely complex in very different ways. However, in Tylor’s definition and conceptualisation, we can see two characteristics that are still often attributed to religion. One, it involves the supernatural. And two, it explains the world to us and therefore may come into conflict with or be discredited by science. Although evolutionism was discredited, it also lies at the basis of another very influential way of defining religion pioneered by the French scholar Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, in this book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In his view, religion is society worshipping itself.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds The full definition is a bit more complex, but central to it is the notion of the sacred rather than the supernatural. According to him, what is necessarily at the basis of a society is the belief in sacred things, things set apart by society as special, symbolising that which is valued most by a group and must not be questioned. These sacred symbols are surrounded by taboos. For example, even the suggestion that the rights of the individual do not matter sends many Western liberals into fits of indignation. So these symbols, these sacred symbols, do not have to refer to something supernatural.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds Following Durkheim, if any thing can be sacred, and therefore can take on a religious character, this means that religion should not be defined by substance, by what people believe in, but by what it does, by function. This has led to the suggestion that football can be thought of as a religion. It brings together a whole nation. It creates effervescence. And the behaviour of fans certainly suggests that they think the football field, the shirts of certain players, or other objects associated with football have a sacred character. This may seem ridiculous, yet it can be useful to look at a great many phenomena in this way. What is held sacred in a society? What are symbols of national unity?

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds What kind of emotions are provoked by the destruction of certain symbols? The sociologist Bellah, especially, has developed this type of analysis, calling these symbols a form of “civil religion.” However, this functional way of defining religion runs the obvious risk of including everything into its definition and thus becoming unhelpful in distinguishing religion from other phenomena. Therefore, the search for a satisfying, substantive definition of religion that could help in cross-cultural comparison did not end. One of the most influential definitions is that of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Skip to 5 minutes and 7 seconds He said, “Religion is defined as a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions would such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” This definition of religion and culture should be understood as part of the interpretive tradition in sociology and anthropology, as pioneered by another founding father in social sciences and the study of religion, Max Weber. This interpretive tradition departs from the understanding that people’s behaviours are formed by systems of meaning, leading to a certain understanding of the world.

Skip to 6 minutes and 2 seconds The job of the social scientist is to interpret and describe these systems from what people say and what people do. This means religion can be thought of as a system of meaning or symbols that is not necessarily linked to a sacred text, such as the Bible or the Quran. In this sense, the definition of Geertz avoids the ethnocentrism and evolutionism of other approaches that distinguish between “fully developed” religion, including a sacred book and a particular infrastructure, such as a church or a mosque, and “primitive” forms of religion. Text-based notions of religion are primarily based on Christianity, and consequently any other type of religion would seem to fall short of it.

Skip to 6 minutes and 51 seconds However, as you will see in your readings, Geertz’s definition has also been criticised as ethnocentric, too strongly based on a Christian view of religion. What can we conclude from this admittedly very brief overview of the problems of defining religion? One, substantive definitions run into the problem that they cannot be universal. Two, functional definitions run into the problem that they are too inclusive and linked to particular functionalist views of society as an organism. Three, we cannot deny that religion as a category is out there in the world. People use it, even if they do not always mean the same thing with it.

Skip to 7 minutes and 40 seconds In this course, we will mainly look at religion in a third sense, as something that can mean different things to different people in different contexts. This is why we also invite you as an active participant in this course to examine what the people in your social circles understand religion to be and how people think it is related to conflict or not.

Religion is a historically constructed category

Defining religion can be a difficult task. Often it is easier to what religion is not, rather than wat religion is. This video gives a brief overview of prominent systems for defining religion that have been used by academics in the 20th and 21st century, namely: Functional definitions and Substantive definitions.

Put briefly, Functional definitions concern themselves with themes such as: symbols and act that are authoritative or powerful, and systems of social and cosmological ordering. Substantive definitions broadly are concerned with themes such as the supernatural powers or deities, and cosmologies that may be at odds with scientific discourse.

Up for debate

The discussion that follows this step will be directed toward you applying these theoretical frameworks in a real world setting, with interviews of other people. But before any analytical tool is used to understand another’s views, it is best to familiarise yourself with it and to reflect on your own personal understanding of these concepts. Based on this video we have posed potential questions for your reflection and discussion below:

  1. How would you define religion? - Why do you think you hold the stance that you do?
  2. Where would you place your definition of division within these two categories, functional, substantive or somewhere between the two? - Why do you place your definition where you do?
  3. Based on your definition of religion, do you think that an ideology like democracy, communism or environmentalism could be viewed as a Religion or like a religion, and why?

Please feel free to discuss your own definitions of religion below in the comments section. We do encourage healthy debate between participants, however we remind students that everyone is entitled to their views.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Religion and Conflict

University of Groningen

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: