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The great value of a narrow definition is that you can be very specific: certain things are in, and other things are out. The value of a wide definition is that cover such a wide spectrum.

If you use a narrow definition, then something like football would certainly not count as religion. If you use a wide definition, it could! Just look at the ritual dress that some fans wear to football matches, the ritual surrounding it, and so on.

Of course even a wide definition would have to draw the line somewhere. Somewhere there will be a cut–off point. Remember: the great virtue of definitions is that they help us to think and speak clearly and consistently. So every useful definition, regardless of how narrow or wide, will have its clear boundaries.

In the subject Religion Studies a rather wide definition of religion is usually better than a very narrow one. To use a simile: for our purposes it is better to fish with a net that could capture a large number of fish, rather than with a line and bait that would catch only one fish.

Substantive and functional definitions

A substantive definition says what religion is . This kind of definition says: there is a thing out there, and the word "religion" refers to that thing. The implication is that your definition is right or wrong. The thing itself will tell whether your definition is good or bad. Just find the thing, and measure your definition against it.

A functional definition says what the word religion can do for us. This kind of definition says: there are lots of things in life that somehow seem to be related; our definition is a search instrument, a magnet. We move it over life and we pick up hosts of fascinating material that provide us with deeper insight into humanity.

Here there are not really "right" or "wrong" definitions, rather "more useful" and "less useful" ones. Of course not anything would go. Not any old definition would be as good as any other one. Here, definitions must have clear boundaries and must be clear and consistent.

For example, if your definition includes both of the following statements at the same time, it is quite useless: "religion is always expressed in ritual" and "religion is not always expressed in ritual". Time to go back to the drawing board! Note another distinction between the two kinds of definition: substantive definitions tend to say that they come after the facts of religion. Religion exists before we try to define it.

Functional definitions say that we must first have an initial idea of the word "religion" before we will be able to pick up the facts of religion – you must first know what you are looking for before you can find anything. Functional definitions evolve over time.

Let us not overplay the distinction here. Any reasonable person would admit that we need both: real life out there, and our definitions, and that they are dependent on each other. Definitions do not define things into existence; neither do they just describe things.

To return to the grid at the beginning of the module: you need both the vertical and the horizontal strands to do good work. When you have a solid, good instrument (i.e. a definition) you will be able to relate the various religions and religious phenomena; and it is only when you have learnt a great deal about various religions that your definition will become a powerful instrument, capable of yielding a great deal of meaning.

Normative and descriptive definitions

The word normative " comes from "norm", which means the same as "standard". So this kind of definition has a built–in tendency to distinguish between good or bad religion. Only "good" religion (usually: the kind of religion that I/we agree with) counts as real religion; the rest is inferior nonsense, not really deserving to be called "religion" at all.

This kind of definition does not necessarily coincide with narrow definitions, but sometimes it does. For example: it could happen that the definition religion is belief in God is implying that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (which do not rest on the belief in God) are inferior, and should therefore be discounted as far as "real" religion is concerned.

A descriptive definition realises how easily bias can creep into our work, and tries to eliminate it as far as possible. It wants to maintain a scholarly stance. Whatever meets the criteria laid down in the definition that we use, will be counted as religion – whether one personally likes that phenomenon or not.

Note that in Religion Studies normative definitions are to be avoided. We want to understand religion, not judge it from a religious point of view.

Denotative and connotative definitions

These terms come from the verbs "to denote" and "to connote". To denote means to give the most basic, primary meaning of a word. To connote means to mention the attributes that are usually associated with it.

Let us take the word "father" as an example. This word denotes a male who has begotten a child – that is its simplest, most basic definition. It connotes male sex, older age, existence before, physical strentgth, authority, affection, support, upbringing, financial security and so on.

Again, it is unnecessary to say that one is right and one is wrong. It depends on the context in which one wants to use a definition. Sometimes one type is better, sometimes the other.

A denotative definition has the advantage that it may communicate directly what the essence of something is. But, if it is too short or does not fit the context, it may run the risk of being witty but not really saying anything at all. The world of literature abounds with pithy nut–shell, one–line (or less) definitions of things, but they sometimes arouse the emotions rather than feed the intellect. Sometimes they may be quick and effective, but may also be a stark oversimplification of things.

A connotative definition on the other hand has the value of covering more aspects, but if it becomes too long and complex, it may also lose its value. The trick is to know what kind of definition fits the needs of a certain situation better. It comes with experience.

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Source:  OpenStax, Learning about religion. OpenStax CNX. Apr 18, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11780/1.1
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