What Is Religion? Definition and Characteristic


What Is Religion? Definition and Characteristic

A good way to begin a study is to start with definition. Definition is important because it sets boundaries that could help us to focus on important and salient features of the study. 

It is only through definition that we can differentiate a concept from other concepts, a phenomenon from other phenomena, and a study from other studies. For instance, a definition of religion allows us to differentiate religion from art, morality, philosophy, history and music among others.

It is hoped that by the end of this article, you should be able to: Give different definitions of religion; Mention the names of scholars who gave some definitions of religion; and Classify the different definitions to the different perspectives in which religion has been defined.


The Nature of Man

Man is Naturally Religious but not Necessarily Religious

Are human beings naturally religious? Should we take religion to be in some way an innate, instinctive, or otherwise inevitable aspect of human life? Or is religion a historically contingent, nonessential aspect of basic human being? These are not questions of merely academic curiosity.

The answers have big implications for how human personal and social life should be properly ordered. They often imply positions about the truth value of religious and secular claims about reality. Answers and arguments about them are also bound up with massive historical projects that seek to shape social orders. 

These include the neo Enlightenment project to create a rational, secular modernity and various religious projects to create a modernity that socially accommodates religious worldviews if not place them at the center. 

The futures of world civilizations around the globe are today being contested by movements that are affected by different answers to the questions posed above.

The stakes of the answers are therefore high for implications in public policy, institutional practices, and deep cultural formation over time.

The religious issue pertains to human beings by nature universally since beginning of humanity in all other cultures. The question of whether religiosity is a necessity in human nature is quite dicey. But it is evident that religion is natural to human beings. The empirical evidence gives us four facts that do not consistently answer the question.

First, very many people in the world are not religious, and some entire cultures appear to be quite secular, without apparent damage to their happiness and functionality. This suggests that religion is not natural to human being but an accidental or inessential practice only some human beings experience.

Second, religion generally is not fading away in the modern world as a whole. Even the most determined attempts by powerful states to repress and extinguish religion (in Russia, China, Revolutionary France, Albania, and North Korea, for example) have failed. 

Religion thus also seems to be incredibly resilient, perhaps incapable of being destroyed and terminated. This suggests that religion is somehow irrepressibly natural to human being.

Third, even when traditionally religious forms of human life seem to fade in some contexts, new and alternative forms of life often appear in their place that engage the sacred, spiritual, transcendent, and liturgical needs of human beings.

New Age ideas and claims to be “spiritual but not religious” are obvious instances. Organizations, movements, and practices as different as “secular” environmentalism, academic economics, and sports spectacles have religious dimensions.

Many of today’s most popular films, fiction, and television shows deal with superhuman powers, supernatural realities, and spiritual themes. Even those in traditional religious groups who seem religiously disengaged exhibit arguably religious practices, including what sociologists call “vicarious religion,” “believing without belonging,” and “everyday religion.” Some, like St. Augustine, have argued that many apparently antireligious activities—including drunkenness, carousing, promiscuous sex, harsh athletic training, committed political activism, incessant material consumption, and drug addiction—actually represent deeply driven human religious longings and searching, which happen to be misdirected quests for the true religious good.

The presence of these religious alternatives adds credence to the view that religion is irrepressibly natural to human being.

The fourth fact points back to the view that religion isn’t an essential part of who we are. 

The role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies depends greatly upon personal and historical experiences and developments. They are, as sociologists say, “path dependent.”

Different people and groups can and do head in quite different directions when it comes to religion. No one narrative or trajectory tells the whole story, and in fact there simply may not be a dominant story.

At best, scholars can note and interpret broad patterns and associations.

This suggests that religion is not natural, if by natural we mean consistently expressed. What should we make of these four facts, which seem to speak both for and against the idea that humanity is naturally religious? I believe there is a way to make sense of all of the evidence.

What is necessary is to understand what it means to say that something is “natural” for human beings. People often cannot understand the question of human nature because their way of understanding it is framed (whether they know it or not) by the ideas of positivist empiricism. Positivism tries to read human nature off the surface of human behavior.

It tells us to look for regular associations between observable empirical events and defines “explanation” as identifying the strongest, most significant associations between them. Once positivists find these explanations, they apply them as “covering laws” to all relevant cases and situations.

Applied to the question at hand, the debate thus proceeds on the unquestioned assumption that either human being definitely are naturally religious, and so religion will always persist in human societies, or they are not naturally religious, and so modernity will inevitably secularize people and society as we shed the accidents of our cultural past. But this is not an adequate view of what nature means.

We need instead to take a realist approach, which observes that everything that exists in reality possesses distinctive characteristics and capacities by virtue of its particular ontological makeup.

The “nature” of anything refers to the stably characteristic properties, capacities, and tendencies it possesses at a “deep” level by virtue of what it is.

By nature, as I have argued in my book What Is a Person?, human beings have specific features, capacities, powers, limits, and tendencies, and human nature is defined by these as expressed by human beings taken as a whole.

The tendencies normally direct the use of our capacities in particular directions and not others. People have the capacity to exercise their muscles but tend to do so in certain ways for example, to walk upright because that is easier and more efficient than crab-walking.

The causal capacities and tendencies of real things are neither determined or determining nor random or chaotic.

They are therefore neither absolutely predictable nor incomprehensible. Human beings are in their nature-guided actions neither determined nor fully autonomous.

Nevertheless, because the tendencies normally direct the capacities in certain directions, when we speak about human nature we are pointing to a certain grain in the expressed features, abilities, tendencies, and operations of persons.

When we say that a social activity, arrangement, or pattern is in accord with or contrary to human nature, we are saying that it works either with or against that grain of nature. To understand these matters well, we also have to distinguish potentiality from actuality, mere possibility from full realization.

Different environments activate, or don’t activate, different combinations of capacities and powers. A child’s aptitude for math or music or baseball, for example, is realized or fulfilled (or not) depending upon environmental conditions that do or don’t activate and nurture it in various ways.

 Natural potentials may go unrealized. But that does not make them unreal or not part of the nature of things. It simply means that they are currently dormant and unrealized. Social reality develops through complex processes of interaction and emergence that in different contexts will produce quite different events and outcomes.

But variability in social reality does not mean that nothing has a nature but that real nature can and will be expressed in various ways. 

Thus, the highly variable characteristics of both individual human beings and particular human societies flow from rather than contradict the idea that we human beings have a stable nature.

 Our natural capacities and tendencies must actually be realized or expressed, and a culture-making animal like the human being realizes and expresses them in all kinds of different ways.

Another way of putting the point is to say that certain natural powers and potentials exist at a deep level and are triggered and activated only under certain conditions and when activated are realized in certain ways and not others.

Thus, when we consider whether or not human beings are naturally religious, we need to reject the empiricist notion that we can read human nature off the surface of human behavior. 

Instead, as realists, we have to use all available empirical evidence to understand what we can’t always see, including the innate capacities and aptitudes we observe in their highly complex expressions when they are realized but cannot see when they are not.

Our task is not (as it is for positivism) to discover the covering laws that explain and predict observable associations of conditions and events, but to use all available empirical evidence and powers of reason to develop conceptual models that as accurately as possible describe the real capacities and causal processes operating at the deeper, unobservable level of reality.

This is what scientists do with subatomic particles, for instance. It is what all human knowledge requires. How does this help us understand the question about whether human beings are naturally religious? I begin by stating my position negatively.

First, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean “by nature” in the positivist-empiricist sense of being compelled by some natural and irrepressible need, drive, instinct, or desire to be religious. Plain observation shows that some people are religious and some are not, often quite happily and functionally

so. Second, and closely related, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean that every human culture has a functional need or intractable impulse to make religion one of its centrally defining features. Like particular people, societies vary in how important a role religion plays in their lives.

Some are highly religious.

Others are quite secular, with religion operating on the margins. At the level of observation the most we can say is that complete secularity appears to be impossible for societies. But that is a long way from saying that human beings are naturally religious.

Nonetheless, human beings are naturally religious when by that we mean that they possess, by virtue of their given ontological being, a complex set of innate features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies that give them the capacity to think, perceive, feel, imagine, desire, and act religiously and that under the right conditions tend to predispose and direct them toward religion.

The natural religiousness of humanity is not discerned in the (nonexistent) uniformity of empirical religious beliefs or practice in individuals or societies. It is instead located in natural features latent within our humanity and subject, as all innate capacities are, to the complexities of interactions and stimulations that do (and don’t) bring these features to the surface.

This not only helps to explain religion’s primordial, irrepressible, widespread, and seemingly inextinguishable character in the human experience, it also suggests that the skeptical Enlightenment, secular humanist, and New Atheist visions for a totally secular human world are simply not realistic—they are cutting against a very strong grain in the nature of reality’s structure and so will fail to achieve their purpose.

But that is not the whole story. Taking the concept of “being religious by nature” in a properly critical sense also helps us interpret the data that tells us that human beings and societies often are not religious.

This view tells us that nonreligious people possess the natural capacities and tendencies toward religion but that those capacities and tendencies have not been activated by environmental, experiential triggers or else have been activated but then neutralized or deactivated by some other social forces. 

But what exactly are the natural tendencies toward religion grounded in human person hood? They are the interconnected set of orientations toward life and the world in which human beings continually seem to find themselves.

We are speaking here about important aspects of the human condition.

The first of these natural human tendencies toward religion springs from our universal human condition in relation to what we affirm as true.

As I have argued in my book Moral, Believing Animals, all human beings are believers, not knowers who know with certitude. Everything we know is grounded on presupposed beliefs that cannot be verified with more fundamental proof or certainty that provides us assurance that they are true. That is just as true for atheists as for religious adherents. The quest for foundationalism certainty, with which we are all familiar, is a distinctly modern project, one launched as a response to the instabilities and uncertainties of early-modern Europe.

But that modern project has failed. There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing. That is the human condition. That means that religious commitment is not fundamentally different from any human belief commitment. It involves the same innate human need to believe more than one can “prove.”

Otherwise we would live in a cognitive desert, unable to furnish our minds with enough perceptions and ideas to begin thinking. Religious believing thus shares the larger epistemic situation of all human believing. 

The second natural tendency toward religion springs from the human capacity to recognize problems and our desire to solve them.

By one way of thinking in sociology, which is surely right as far as it goes, religion has its deepest roots in the human desire to avert, forestall, or resolve real and perceived problems. And as human beings we are particularly capable of recognizing problems, and we want to overcome them.

Of course, we encounter problems we have limited or no power to solve. Death provides the most obvious example, illness another. Yet precisely because we can throw our problems into cognitive form and want to solve them, we cannot ignore even the most intractable and seemingly unsolvable problems. We often want to solve problems we cannot solve.

When the prospect of a helpful superhuman power is present to human minds, through culture, socialization, revelation, or some other means, it is quite natural for us to appeal to this power to help avert or resolve our problems.

Third, our existential condition also lends itself to the tendency toward religion. Human beings have both incredible capacities and severe limits. We know we will die but not what comes after death, for example. We often seek truth, goodness, and beauty but find so little of it in this world and oftentimes in ourselves.

Many people naturally ask and wrestle with answers to the Big Questions: What should I live for and why? What should I believe, and why should I believe it? What is morality, and where does it come from? What kind of person should I be? What is the meaning of life, and what should I do in order to lead a fulfilling life? We are meaning-making and significance-seeking animals, yet we have difficulty creating satisfying meanings solely from within the horizons of the immanent world we occupy.

Religion has been the primary way that human cultures have answered these life questions. Still, religion is not the only way for human beings to answer them and live functional, happy lives. The human existential condition does not require that people be religious or feel the need to address and answer such questions—many people appear happy to focus on the present, live as well as they can, and not be bothered by the Big Questions.

At the same time, however, the capacity to respond to the human existential condition in terms that are not religious does not mean that this existential condition does not exist or that its tendency to lead to religion is not powerful. It does and is.

Finally, the human need to make what Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluations” works as another tendency toward religion. We unavoidably operate in relation to moral beliefs that are taken to arise not from our personal preferences and desires but from sources transcending them. It is simply unnatural for human beings to think that morality is nothing but a charade, that all moral claims are nothing but relative human constructions.

Friedrich Nietzsche attempted some version of this but could not himself finally escape from arguing that some things were in fact true, that some positions were actually right—which is why he wrote his works to convince readers of his views. His “trans valuation of all values” still ended up committing him to certain values, truth claims, and beliefs about good and bad. “Slave morality” was for him bad, for instance, while the morality of the pagan noble warrior was good.

This innate tendency to make strong evaluations leaves us needing to account for where morality comes from, what makes it real. Some people are able to submerge such questions beneath their consciousness, but the moral questions recurrently return in cultures and social groups, if not in the lives of distinct persons.

Again, religion is not the only source of answers, but historically it has been a foundational and central one. Even though few ordinary people are moral philosophers who care about intellectual consistency (not that most moral philosophers necessarily prove to be all that consistent either), the questions themselves never disappear from human life. This too, under the right conditions, triggers the human capacity for religion.

In short, the human condition entails genuinely natural capacities for religion, which these four tendencies often direct toward the actualized practice of religion. No human person or culture has to respond to these conditions religiously.

Any such tendency, weak or strong, is merely a tendency not a determination, necessity, or historical destiny. There are other, functional, nonreligious ways to deal with the human condition.

Still, we can justifiably say that human beings are naturally religious as a matter of real, natural potentiality, capacity, and tendency while at the same time acknowledging that very many human beings and even some cultures are not particularly religious at all. This view accounts for the seemingly contradictory evidence with which we began.

Religiosity is widespread, yet not universal, and though not inevitable, impossible to extinguish. What then does this tell us about matters in our own present age and likely into the future? That we are naturally religious does not mean that tomorrow will necessarily see a great revival, or that all secularists are secretly unhappy, “anonymous believers,” or somehow subhuman because they are living in some sense against the grain of their natures.

But it strongly suggests that we should not expect human societies to become thoroughly secularized. Because we human beings are indeed religious by nature, secularization will be limited in effect, contingent in direction on various factors, and susceptible to long-term reversals.

Also read: Conflicts and Resolving Conflict in Agricultural Policy Objectives

Defining Religion

The illustration of the Hindu parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant as we identified in  article could also be used to state the problem in defining religion.  The problems that is associated with understanding the phenomenon of religion.

To restate the points, the first and most important problem is the ambiguity of the term. The ambiguity reflects the dynamic and inexpressible qualities of religious experiences which are the core of religion. Such experiences are personal and intense, mysterious and indefinable.

The problems also include the nature of religion itself and the elements, concepts and phenomena that count as religion, the theoretical and ideological influences of the scholars who provide some of the definitions, and time-space conditioning of the scholars. 

Furthermore, we discovered that several perspectives affect the meanings of religion. These perspectives involve anthropological, sociological, psychological, phenomenological, philosophical, theological, ethical, historical, etc.

As we discovered two important dimensions of religion, we provided a framework for considering a meaningful definition of religion.

We shall note the efforts of scholars who have attempted to give meaningful definitions of religion.

Emmanuel Bolaji Idowu, an eminent scholar of African Traditional Religion, noted the efforts of H. Fielding Hall and Professor Leuba. Idowu wrote that Hall listed twenty definitions of religion while J. B. Pratt recorded the effort of Professor.

Leuba thus: Professor Leuba enumerates forty-eight definitions of religion from as many great men (and elsewhere ads two of his own, apparently to fill out the even half-hundred). 

But the striking thing about these definitions is that, persuasive as many of them are, each learned doctor seems quite unpersuaded by any but his own. And when doctors disagree what are the rest of us going to do?

It is necessary to point out again that if we analyses all the fifty definitions, there would still be some areas where those definitions show some deficiencies. One of the reasons is that more than ever before the dynamism of religion is growing in a sporadic manner, particularly in this age of modernity and globalization. 

Religion is developing many faces. There is a lot of intra- and inter-religious contact as so many cultures and societies continue to interact. New ideologies are developing.

Most importantly, western societies are recognizing the imposing power and influence of religion, particularly in the face of religious evangelism, revivalism and fundamentalism leading to conflicts, crises and terrorism.


Types of Definition

Scholars of religion have identified two types of definition of religion: the functional and the substantive. Some thinkers of the enlightenment studied religion only as remnant of a past age or symptom of alienation. However, both the thinkers of enlightenment and modern sociologists have taken religion seriously.

The ‘founders’ of modern sociology, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim attached theoretical importance to the academic study of religion.

In fact, religion has been central to their theory of society.

To Weber who focused on social change, religion is an important factor of social change. Religion it is that transforms the society.

For Emile Durkheim, the question that engaged his mind was on the role of religion in keeping together a society. To him, religion plays the role as social elements of producing cohesion and solidarity. It is the essential factor of identity and integration.

It is important to note that though Weber studied religion impressively as important to every society, he did not offer a definition.

However, many sociologists drew their definitions of religion from his extensive studies. Thus, in different disciplines such as economy, politics and philosophy, one would note the importance of the works of Max Weber.

Also, we should note that Weber did not concern himself with the claims to private religious experiences. He regarded a claim to religious experience as the revival of old gods which Christianity had laid to rest. It was only the function of religion, the social impact on the society that at centre of the discussions of Max Weber.

The attitude of Max Weber may be viewed from his own religious bias, for he was an agnostic. Emile Durkheim studied both the primitive and modern society, and realized that religion provides the symbols of world interpretation for the society.

To him, religion was essentially social. Particularly, he noted that the beliefs and practices regarding the sacred usually and functionally united people as a single community with one heart and soul.

We should note that in his early academic inquiry, Durkheim hypothesized that religion was a system of collective self-interpretation only in traditional communities but had no place in modern, enlightened societies. His thinking was that the complex division of labour in industrial society produced interdependence and solidarity. He later changed his mind having realized that religion possessed something eternal.

Thus, to him, religion was useful even in the age of science and technology since religion possessed both the power that kept the society together and the power that summoned it to greater fidelity to the ideal of the society.

In giving a meaningful definition of religion, the definition must include both the substantive and functional aspects of religion. Substantive aspect deals with the essence of religion. 

The essence of religion expresses the intrinsic quality of religion. The functional tells of the roles of religion in the lives of the individual and/or society.

Let us use water as an illustration of the substantive and functional aspects of religion. The chemical contents of water are hydrogen and oxygen which when subjected to test in the chemistry laboratory reveals those qualities. The components are the essence of ‘being’ of what is called water. Without one of the components, we do not have water.

The functions of water are immense. Somebody may not understand the chemical components of water; yet he or she knows how water functions in human life, that is, the use of water for human beings: life sustenance, domestic use, agricultural use, chemical products, manufacturing of liquid products, etc.

The issue of the substance or essence and the function or role of religion is important in giving a precise definition.

Most of the scholars who have attempted the definitions of religion have been found to emphasize one of the two aspects. We shall identify and discuss some of these scholars with their different perspectives.


Characteristic Emphases in the Definition of Religion

It is important to mention that each person who defines religion focuses on some particular aspects of human life and experience, or on what religion does, positive or negative.

We shall now examine the characteristic emphases in their various definitions. It is necessary that as you go through the various definitions, look at each of them critically.

In your analysis, try to suggest whether the definition represents the real and accurate, the substantive and functional aspects of the definition of religion.

Radoslav A. Tsanoff, in his Religious Crossroads, classifies the definitions of religion into the following ways:

(1) Theistic and other beliefs

(2) Practices

(3) Mystical feelings

(4) Worship of the holy

(5) Conviction of the conservation of values.

For our own, we shall identify the definitions of religion and consider them under the following categories.


Friedrich Schleiermacher, an important 19th century German theologian and philosopher, has defined religion as “the feeling of absolute dependence, of pure and entire passiveness” and that “true religion is sense and taste for the Infinite.” He asserts that religion should include emotions.

Schleiermacher bases his definition on human’s feeling and intuition. It anchors on dependence on one Infinite, or the Eternal, which in some religions may be termed God. The definition does not reflect human participation in religious scheme as in knowing or doing something in the name of religion.

Ritual Activity

This definition emphasizes the performance of specific acts that are established by the religious community.

Anthony Wallace, an anthropologist defines religion as “a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in humans or nature.” The definition holds that religion is only situated within the realm of humanity and society. There is no reference to the divine as some religion may hold.


It is very common to both young and old when asked about the definition of religion to define it as belief in God or the supernatural. Most theo-centric religions like Christianity and Islam will define religion in terms of ‘belief’, particularly belief in a supernatural power or entity.


Monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasizes that religion is a relationship with one omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient divine being who manifests in and superintends on the affairs of humanity and the whole universe. 

The essential relationship is differently captured in definite terms in different religions. An example in Judaism is the Shema in Judaism as contained in the Old Testament (Deut. 6:4-6); in Christianity as revealed in the belief in Jesus Christ who is regarded as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6); and in Islam as contained in the Shahadah, the Testimony to the oneness of Allah (Qur’an 112).

The Solitary Individual

Alfred North Whitehead, a prominent English-American philosopher, defines religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness; and if you were never solitary, you were never religious.” This emphasizes the involvement of the individual in an intimate personal dialogue with himself or herself. It makes no reference to either the supernatural or a group or the society in which a person lives.

Social Valuation

William Lessa and Evon Vogt, (two anthropologists) define religion as “a system of beliefs and practices directed toward the ‘ultimate concern’ of a society.” To them, religion is human-centred. Here, society provides the centre for religious valuation. Religious beliefs, practices, and attitudes are directed toward the expression of what a society of people holds to be of central importance.


Karl Marx, a 19th century social philosopher, and the father of communism, defines religion this way: “Religion is the heart of the heartless, sigh of the oppressed creature … It is the opium of the people.” Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around humans as long as he does not revolve around himself.

 Marx sees religion as something that misinterprets reality. This portrays human being’s response to the universe as essentially immature and distorted.

Ultimate Reality and Value

John B. Magee says that “Religion is the realm of the ultimately real and ultimately valuable.” Religion is seen as the true and ultimate measure of people’s existence, the final test of life’s meaning.


Also read: Issues in African Philosophy

Conclusion on What Is Religion? Definition and Characteristic

Although religion is difficult to define, different scholars have attempted to define it. When we examine a particular definition, we need to understand from which perspective the definition fits and the emphasis of such a definition.

This will help us as scholars of religion to approach the study of religion from a scientific standpoint.

Religion is difficult to define. The difficulties that beset the definition of religion are many and varied. The difficulties arise out of the nature of the concept.

A few of the difficulties are the ambiguity of the term; several life experiences which are capable of change because of individual differences, social and political location, time and change those experiences that lack adequate human expressions such as dreams, ecstasy, death and cultural issues. Yet scholars have attempted to define the phenomenon.

Their definitions are classifiable into two types: the substantive and functional. The substantive focuses on the essential quality or essence of religion while the functional addresses the roles or impact of religion on the social. These roles or impacts could be positive or negative.

It is also noteworthy that the definitions contain some of the characteristics such feeling, ritual activity, belief, monotheism, solitary individual, social valuation, illusion, notion of ultimate reality and value.

One point that needs to be made is that we need to provide a definition to be able to have a focus and direction.

Definition provides a compass and a direction. It is important that you read academic books on religion and note the definitions that are given of religion. No definition is the correct definition. A definition can only give you some idea of religion.

As a student of religion, you will do well in getting equipped through reading all these definitions. Try also to analyses any definitions you come across, and classify them in terms of the type and perspective.

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