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In this module you will be introduced to a number of definitions of religion.

Your own definition of religion

At this point it would be very useful for you to experiment with drawing up a definition of religion.

Before you do that, first warm up a bit by defining ordinary things in everyday life. To use examples, take "chair", "dog" or "mountain". Don"t jump to a dictionary right away. First come up with your own definitions. Not as easy as you thought, eh?

Develop a definition of religion. This does not exclude that you may eventually come up with one of the definitions below, or with another one held by other scholars. The important point is that you know how and why you came to that definition. So what is required, is not only the definition itself, but a thorough motivation of your reasoning behind coming to it. One or two pages will do.

A comparative look at various definitions of religion

They will simply be listed. You are not required to learn them by heart. But read them very carefully, and make sure that you understand fully what each of them means. It would of course do no harm to remember some of them. You will be required, however, to analyse and criticise them.

It would be possible to go deeply into each one of them and to study all the ideas that lie behind them and are contained in them, but that would take us too far for now. However, some of them contain ideas (such as "ritual") that you may have not studied yet. In such cases, consult a knowledgeable person or literature to clarify the meaning of such terms.

According to the following authors, arranged in alphabetical order, religion refers to:

... a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things ... beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them - Emile Durkheim

When Durkheim here speaks of "church", he uses a term that is derived from Christianity, but that is (in certain senses) used with reference to the organized, socially established forms of all religions. It happens quite often that a term originally at home in one specific religion, became useful to describe something in more religions. "Taboo" is another example.

... illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most insistent wishes of mankind - Sigmund Freud

... the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people - Karl Marx

... all people's serious concerns that go beyond their strictly biological needs - Thomas Luckmann

... whatever gives people a serious sense of identity - Hans Mol

... a way of entering into a relationship with the supra–empirical aspects of reality, be they conceived as God, gods, or otherwise - Thomas F O'Dea

The word "supra" means "beyond". "Empirical" means "what has to do with sense–experience". Together they refer to those aspects of life that go beyond, or lie outside, our ordinary sense experience.

... what the individual does with his own solitariness - Alfred North Whitehead

... advice about, and training in, the steps necessary for salvation - Bryan Wilson

... a comprehensive and fundamental orientation in the world. This usually contains ideas of the ultimate nature of things and of divinity, transmitted in sacred traditions, requiring social and personal commitment, and expressed in rituals and morality. It includes, but is not restricted to organized forms of religions, world views, belief systems and indigenous knowledge systems - The South African Curriculum Statement for Religion Studies

The last definition rests on and applies the South African Policy on Religion and Education, which was issued on 12 September 2003 (Government Gazette Volume 459, No 25459). We just had to include something like this to show you the difference between definitions made up by scholars and those made up for legal and administrative purposes. Note how this definition also breaks one of the first rules of definition-writing: never include the word itself in your definition! A definition of religion should not contain the word "religion" itself.

Your own definition of religion, reconsidered

Has your understanding of religion changed by reading these definitions? Is there one, or are there elements of several, that have impressed you to the point where you would like to rewrite your own definition? Go ahead, do it now.

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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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