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Functional Definitions of Religion

Examples of How Religion Operates and What Religion Does


One common way to define religion is to focus on what are known as functional definitions: these are definitions which emphasize the way religion operates in human lives. When constructing a functional definition is to ask what a religion does — usually psychologically or socially.

Below are various short quotes from philosophers and scholars of religion which attempt to capture the nature of religion from a functionalist perspective:


Religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate condition of his existence.
- Robert Bellah

Religion is...the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being.
- F.H. Bradley

When I refer to religion, I will have in mind a tradition of group worship (as against individual metaphysic) that presupposes the existence of a sentience beyond the human and capable of acting outside of the observed principles and limits of natural science, and further, a tradition that makes demands of some kind on its adherents.
- Stephen L. Carter

Religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
- Emile Durkheim

All religion...is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.
- Friedrich Engels

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities.... If one attempts to assign religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems...a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
- Sigmund Freud

A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating 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 realistic.
- Clifford Geertz

For an anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive conceptions of the world, the self and the relations between them on the one hand ... its model of aspect ... and of rooted, no less distinctive “mental” dispositions ... its model for aspect ... on the other.
- Clifford Geertz

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
- Karl Marx

A religion we will define as a set of beliefs, practices and institutions which men have evolved in various societies, so far as they can be understood, as responses to those aspects of their life and situation which are believed not in the empirical-instrumental sense to be rationally understandable and/or controllable, and to which they attach a significance which includes some kind of reference ...of a supernatural order.
- Talcott Parsons

Religion is the serious and social attitude of individuals or communities toward the power or powers which they conceive as having ultimate control over their interests and destinies.
- J.B. Pratt

Religion is an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.
- Melford E. Spiro

[Religion is] a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature.
- Anthony Wallace

Religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.
- J. Milton Yinger

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