DEFINITIONS OF RELIGION : 5 SCHOLARLY DEFINITIONS OF RELIGION

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There is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion. It may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that claims to relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. Religion is the set of beliefs, feelings, dogmas and practices that define the relations between human being and sacred or divinity. A given religion is defined by specific elements of a community of believers: dogmas, sacred books, rites, worship, sacrament, moral prescription, interdicts, organization. The majority of religions have developed starting from a revelation based on the exemplary history of a nation, of a prophet or a wise man who taught an ideal of life.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined religion as a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Peter Mandaville and Paul James defined religion as a relatively-bounded system of beliefs, symbols and practices that addresses the nature of existence, and in which communion with others and Otherness is lived as if it both takes in and spiritually transcends socially-grounded ontologies of time, space, embodiment and knowing.

Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion in 1871 as “the belief in spiritual beings”. He argued that narrowing the definition to mean the belief in a supreme deity or judgment after death or idolatry and so on, would exclude many peoples from the category of religious, and thus “has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them”. He also argued that the belief in spiritual beings exists in all known societies.

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In his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, the psychologist William James defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”. By the term divine James meant “any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not” to which the individual feels impelled to respond with solemnity and gravity.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim, in his seminal book ‘The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life’, defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”. By sacred things he meant things “set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”. Sacred things are not, however, limited to gods or spirits. On the contrary, a sacred thing can be “a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred”. Religious beliefs, myths, dogmas and legends are the representations that express the nature of these sacred things, and the virtues and powers which are attributed to them.

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