Philosophy of Religion

Chapter 10. A Definition of Religion

Section  3 Requirements of a Definition

There are quite a number of definitions of religion that have been presented over time.

Problems with definitions:

The English word "religion" is derived from the Middle English "religioun" which came from the Old French "religion." It may have been originally derived from the Latin word "religo" which means "good faith," "ritual," and other similar meanings. Or it may have come from the Latin "religăre" which means "to tie fast."

Defining the word "religion" is fraught with difficulty. All of the definitions that we have encountered contain at least one deficiency:

  • Some exclude beliefs and practices that many people passionately defend as religious. For example, their definition might include belief in a personal deity or some supernatural entities. This excludes such non-theistic  religions as Buddhism and religious Satanism which have no such belief.
  • Some definitions equate "religion" with "Christianity," and thus define two out of every three humans in the world as non-religious.
  • Some definitions are so broadly written that they include beliefs and areas of study that most people do not regard as religious. For example, David Edward's definition would seem to include cosmology and ecology within his definition of religion -- fields of investigation that most people regard to be a scientific studies and non-religious in nature.
  • Some define "religion" in terms of "the sacred" and/or "the spiritual," and thus necessitate the creation of two more definitions.
  • Sometimes, definitions of "religion" contain more than one deficiency.

Dictionary definitions:

Dictionaries have made many attempts to define the word religion:

  1. Barns & Noble (Cambridge) Encyclopedia (1990):
    " single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions."
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990):
    "Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience" That definition would not consider some Buddhist sects as religions. Many Unitarian Universalists are excluded by this description. Strictly interpreted, it would also reject polytheistic religions, since it refers to "a" personal God."
  3. Webster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition):
    "any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy." This definition would exclude religions that do not engage in worship. It implies that there are two important components to religion:
    • one's belief and worship in a deity or deities
    • one's ethical behavior towards other persons

    This dual nature of religion is expressed clearly in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in Matthew 22:36-39:

    "Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

  4. Qumran Bet, "A Community Striving to Come to the Pure Essence of the Worship of YHWH," cites definitions from an unknown dictionary: "religion (ri-lij'[uh]n) n.
    1. The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc., constituting man's relationship with the powers and principles of the universe, especially with a deity or deities; also, any particular system of such beliefs, attitudes, etc.
    2. An essential part or a practical test of the spiritual life.
    3. An object of conscientious devotion or scrupulous care: e.g. His work is a religion to him.
    4. Obs. Religious practice or belief." 1
  5.  An organized system of belief that generally seeks to understand purpose, meaning, goals, and methods of spiritual things. These spiritual things can be God, people in relation to God, salvation, after life, purpose of life, order of the cosmos, etc.

Given all the problems with definitions for religion Philosophers have attempted to deal with them in a careful manner.  What follows is based upon the work of Frederick Ferre in his Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion.  He provides one of the best, if not the best, definitions of religion that satisfies all the conditions for a good definition and provides a deep insight into the origins and nature of religion.

Any definition of religion must satisfy not only the general criteria that all definitions must meet, but a few additional concerns specific to religious phenomena as well. Definitions must:

  1. use ordinary language
  2. avoid ambiguity
  3. avoid contradictions
  4. include all that needs to be included
  5. exclude all that needs to be excluded
  6. avoid circularity

Ordinary language usage of the term "religion" is inadequate to the task of definition because it is among other things, ambiguous and oftentimes contradictory as well. Ordinary language usage is blind and can not deal with new phenomena and can not resolve confusions.

Consider some of these examples of common definitions offered by ordinary language.

Religion is:

  1. belief in god
  2. conviction in supernatural realities relevant to human well being
  3. all of life
  4. whatever gives meaning to life

These offerings make religion into something that is irrational, too superficial or they are too inclusive or too exclusive as definitions for they fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of religious phenomena.

Whatever religion is it must be relevant to:

  1. all kinds of people
  2. all aspects of life
  3. relate to social and public practices
  4. relate to private experiences and practices

Furthermore, any definition of religion must satisfy these requirements:

  1. Scope
  1. inclusive
  2. specific
  1. Cruciality
  1. Unspecialized- relevant to all types of people and all aspects of life
  2. hospitable- to the diversity of the phenomena
  3. permissive- as to personal and social role
  4. open- as to the truth or falsity of claims
  5. unprejudiced- as to possible harm or benefit of the phenomena

So, considering all of the above requirements what would the definition need to notice about religion?


  1. involves the whole of life
  2. is open to all kinds of people
  3. issues naturally in widely various activities
  4. issues in widely various ideas and beliefs
  5. exists and is exhibited in private and social settings
  6. is open to different opinions as to the truth or falsity of its beliefs
  7. has consequences considered to be either harmful or beneficial to individuals and groups
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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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