The Functional Definition of Religion


Religion is a system of beliefs, values, practices and rituals that organizes human community. It may consist of organized groups and institutions that center on a place of worship, as well as personal spirituality, ethical conduct and a belief in some kind of transcendent reality. Throughout history, religion has been the basis for many human endeavors, from art and music to science and politics. It has provided people with a sense of meaning, direction, hope and purpose in life, as well as a source of comfort and a means to cope with difficulties.

Religions vary widely in their beliefs and practices, but most share some core traits: a faith or belief that there is an afterlife; sacred places and objects, such as churches, temples, mosques or synagogues; prayers; holy books; ceremonies or rituals; and a group of gods or goddesses to which believers pray and worship. Often, there is also a person or group that gains almost godlike status in the religion—a prophet or messenger sent to spread the word or carry out a divine mission.

For much of the twentieth century, most attempts to analyze religion used a substantive definition—that is, a set of specific beliefs or behaviors that determines membership in the category. Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices unite a group into a moral community, for example, and Paul Tillich used the term to refer to any dominant concern that serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve believing in unusual realities).

Recently, however, some scholars have begun to use a functional definition of religion—a set of processes and activities that shape how people think about the world and their place in it. This approach differs from the traditional substantive definition because it drops the requirement that a religion must believe in some kind of unique kind of reality.

A number of different theories have been developed to explain this change in emphasis from substance to process. One common view holds that focusing on the structures and disciplinary practices of religions overlooks the fact that they are also grounded in mental states, particularly feelings of devotion or commitment. This is often referred to as the “structure/agency” debate in religious studies.

Another view is that focusing on the observable activities of religions ignores their deeper, invisible origins in human culture and social evolution. This approach is sometimes called the “living religion” theory, which is based on the idea that people use images, objects, rituals, and moral teachings —which they learn from their own traditions or from other sources—to enhance their daily lives, express themselves or their identities, connect with others, or help them navigate the challenges of modern life.

As the nation becomes increasingly diverse and religiously pluralistic, NCSS is committed to ensuring that the study of religion in schools supports students’ ability to engage in a rich, peaceful democracy by understanding the deepest values, identities, aspirations and experiences of people from around the world and in their own communities. This is only possible if the study of religion is taught using the same critical skills that are applied to other subjects, such as history, political science and social studies.