A New Definition of Religion

Many scholars have developed formal definitions of religion. These attempt to find how religious facts can be grouped together, even on the basis of secondary traits. They are often called monothetic, because they work with the classical view that every instance of a concept will share one defining attribute that puts it in that category. This is a flawed approach. If a feature of religion—for example, belief in gods—is taken as the criterion for explaining religion, it will not be possible to understand all of religion, since primitives have no such trait. It is not clear how to develop an operational or provisional definition of religion that avoids these distortions of theory.

Substantive definitions of religion are also flawed. They tend to impose an ideological image of humans upon the concept of religion by concentrating on beliefs, personal experience and the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural. This is a biased definition that may exclude religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, which are nontheistic.

It is more appropriate to view religion as a complex of social and psychological processes. This is a more holistic view that may help to explain its staying power and cross-cultural ubiquity. It is also consistent with research showing that people who have spiritual beliefs are healthier, live longer and are less prone to depression than those without such beliefs. It also fits well with the view of religion as having evolved to benefit larger moral communities.

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