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Defining Religion

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From rituals that protect against tiger attacks in the Sundarbans mangrove forest to pujas to pray for snow in the Himalayas, Dr. Orton’s research is heavily involved with religious themes. Here, she surveys the historical debate about how to define religion and explains how her own fieldwork has shaped her views…


For many young researchers or independent scholars getting started on Anthropology or Religious Studies projects, the academic debate about how to define ‘religion’ can be confusing and counterintuitive, but nonetheless necessary. I’ve never set out to study religion for its own sake, but my work with local communities and wild animals in the Himalayas and the Sundarbans involves listening closely to the views of local people – and that has been formative in how I’ve negotiated the debate.


Europeans and Enlightenment


The European concept of religion was re-evaluated during the Enlightenment, the period from the late 17th century to the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in  1815. The Enlightenment represents a paradigm shift (a complete revolution in thinking).


I’ve heard university lecturers argue that, whereas traditional societies explain everything with reference to religion or the divine, Enlightenment approaches side-lined religion. Instead, the Enlightenment saw the development of the scientific method, preferring rationalistic rather than spiritual explanations, a belief in progress and the idea that society was constantly improving.


These scholars argue that the Enlightenment also saw the distinction between the public sphere and private spheres; in public spaces, people could freely exchange ideas. Religion was relegated to the private sphere: people were free to choose their faith, but this was an individual matter, not a public concern.


However, this is clearly not the case for all societies. For some people, spiritual explanations are a complete account of the world.


Even in the history of European religions, much has been made of the idea that Ancient Greeks did not consider religion to be a specific category distinct from mundane life. Religion was a huge part of life in Ancient Greece, but it was intwined with politics, society and daily life, rather than being something separate. Ancient Greeks used terms such as “things of the gods” (ta tôn theôn) rather than having a specific word for ‘religion’.


Some scholars have objected to the idea of ‘religion’ as a meaningful concept, associating the term with Euro-centric Christian protestant theology and the history of colonialism. And yet, it clearly is a useful concept for many. So, how should scholars define religion?


A Belief in Spiritual Beings


One way of defining religion is called the ‘substantive approach’, in which scholars look for the ‘essence’ of what religion is. In the 1870s, Edward Burnett Tylor settled on the simple definition of religion as “a belief in Spiritual Beings.” 


A problem with this is that not all religions do share such a belief. Some forms of Buddhism, for example, do not necessarily mandate a belief in supernatural entities.


Alternative definitions have focused on shared characteristics of religious experience rather than belief. In 1917, Rudolf Otto suggested that religions share the idea of the ‘numinous’, a “mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other…it cannot be strictly defined.” William James defined four common characteristics of religious experience: ineffability (defying description), having a noetic quality (seeming like a state of knowledge), transience (experienced for a very short time and passivity (people experience, but cannot control the experience).


The Function of Religion


An alternative approach to defining religion is the functionalist approach. Functionalists look at religion’s effects on the world, asking, “What does religion do?”


In 1912, Emile Durkheim wrote, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Durkheim argued religion provides an important function in society, allowing people to gain an understanding of themselves and regulating social norms.


Functionalist definitions open up the category of ‘religion’ to include more things. Some scholars have even considered football in religious terms.


Family Resemblance


Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that language does not work by categorizing things by their essence or function. His language game theory explains that, when someone learns the language of a particular subject, they are learning the rules of a game. We cannot ask the absolute meaning of any word; only its meaning in use.


There are also relationships and similarities. Wittgenstein writes,  “Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on.  What is common to them all?…look and see whether there is anything common to all. - For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.”


These similarities, says Wittgenstein, are family resemblances. This means that the definition of religion can be flexible, based on a number of features shared by most religions. We might identify members of the same human family by common characteristics – the size of the nose, the shape of the mouth, hair and eye colour. Each family member may not exhibit all the traits associated with his family, but he will have enough of them to allow us to recognise that he belongs to it.


In the same way, a religion may have some, but not all, of the characteristics that most religions share – and that is enough for us to identify them as such. The implications for this approach are that religious believers and non-believers are playing different language games, because the claims about God mean different things to them.


A problem with this approach is that when we make a list of things that most religions share, we tend to select features of religion in our familiar culture. Why should Christianity or European ideas be the benchmark against which everything else is measured?


However, this criticism is not entirely fair. Christianity is a monotheistic religion, yet this trait is not demanded of Wittgenstein-style definitions.


Professor of Religion and Folklore Ülo Valk points out that “…‘religion’ is not only a Western invention, as it has emerged in different cultural contexts, such as 17th century Mongolia, where Tibetan Buddhism as an institutionalised and scriptural religion encountered indigenous shamanism.”


Religion as Politics


A fourth approach is to ask how the category of “religion” is defined, who by, and why. Talal Asad argues that looking for  essentialist definitions of religion distract us from the questions of what the definition includes and why. Instead, Asad prefers to ask, “how does theoretical discourse actually define religion? What are the historical conditions in which it can act effectively as a demand for the imitation, or the prohibition, or the authentication of truthful utterances and practices? How does power create religion?”

And yet this approach does not seem to capture the nature of religion for many people. In my fieldwork in Bangladesh and the Himalayas, I use the method of vernacular theorising, which involves listening closely to what people say, rather than theorising about them without their collaboration. I found that ‘religion’ does not always have this political dimension for many people.


Vernacular Religion


In my research on religious syncretism in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, I found that people used the concept of religion to explain relationships between communities.


One Muslim explained to me, “everyone believes in different things. For example, we Muslims take some amulets from the Hindus, such as chanted soil, and Hindus also use the handkerchiefs of many Muslim masters.” In the same village, a Hindu ritual specialist told me: “We are all human beings living in the world as different castes. Everyone practises their own religion.” The same man told me that the mantra he uses refers to some ideas found in Islam.


Elsewhere in the Sundarbans, members of the indigenous Munda community agreed that Hindus and Munda share some of the same gods, telling me, “Everyone performs their religion.” However, the Munda, like other religious groups, do insist on their distinct religious identity (you can listen to my lecture on this and other topics on Our Research Page).


The initial complaint was that supposing religion to be sui generis implied that those in historically powerful positions would then set the tone for how religion is to be conceived. However, religion does seem to be an important and widely used concept by Westerners and non-Westerners alike.


There are differences in the way that groups and individuals think about and define religion, but my own inclination is to listen carefully to local people. They will tell you what religion means to them.




To learn more about Dr. Orton’s research into anthropology and religion, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures, or read her blog post on Himalayan narratives to find out why we should prioritise the voices of local people in anthropological research. Learn more about the Sundarbans in her Bangladesh blog series!


If you’re interested in tutorials with Dr. Orton, take a look at our Religious Studies or Anthropology courses. These courses are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to find out more!


Undertake Your Own Research Project in Anthropology and Religious Studies


Working on your own independent research project needn’t be a lonely task: Dr. Orton works with other independent scholars on projects in conservation and the humanities. Contact us for a chat with her.


If you’re not ready to reach out yet, follow our research methods series on this blog for more ideas! Dr. Orton has written posts on the importance of independent research and how to get started with building your own approach to ethical, people-centred fieldwork.


Reach Out


Follow our Orton Academy Instagram for our Bangladesh highlight reel to see pictures from Dr. Orton’s fieldwork in the Sundarbans – we would love to connect with you!


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