Definition And Explanation Of Religion Research Paper

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This research paper sets out the main forms explanations of religion take by reference to their scope and the extent to which they preserve or subvert the self-understanding of religious believers. At the maximum level of scope explanations of religion amount to comprehensive theories of religion. Typically, such theories also seek to subvert the way in which religious individuals understand their own beliefs and actions. The need for comprehensive theories of religion is shown to arise out of the methodological demands of social and behavioral science itself. Theories of religion need to demarcate their subject matter and hence depend on and give rise to definitions of religion. The paper sets out the differences between the main styles of definition of religion (substantive, functionalist, experiential, and family resemblance) and explores the possibilities of finding common ground between them.

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1. Explaining Religion

1.1 The Nature Of Explanation

Explanations are answers to requests for understanding. To explain something may be to: (a) make it known in detail; (b) render it intelligible; or (c) account for it. Disciplines such as the anthropology of religion may explain a religious phenomenon by citing further facts about it, thus explaining it in sense (a). Or they may explain a religious phenomenon by setting out its connections with other, more familiar or easily understood social facts, thus explaining it in sense (b). These forms of explanation need not overturn, but may merely supplement, the motives and reasons the religious themselves acknowledge as behind their beliefs and behavior. However, the social and behavioral scientist may seek to account for a religious phenomenon (type (c) explanation) by giving its cause and in the citing of that cause may set aside the self-understanding of religious actors. For example, the anthropologist may seek to account for ecstatic religious experiences in terms of the social status, particularly social power, such experiences give to their possessors (Lewis 1989). If this factor is a sufficient explanation, then the agents’ belief that they are genuinely possessed by gods or spirits is an illusion.

1.2 Radical Explanations In The Science Of Religion

It is characteristic of the social sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that they have gone beyond seeking to explain particular religious phenomena. They have produced explanatory theories seeking to account for the existence of religion as such. Such theories hold that the tendency of human beings to engage in religion cannot be taken as a given; there is something problematic in such engagement. For example, an evolutionary theorist may see religious phenomena as ‘survivals,’ that is dysfunctional judged against the circumstances of modern society and thus as a remnant of a once adaptive means of organizing social life (Tylor 1903). A psychological theorist may see a striking correlation between religious symbolism and psychic needs, suggesting that religion is motivated by persistent and universal wish-fulfillment (Freud 1927 1978).

The explanations of religion thus produced are radical, comprehensive, and external. They embody the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (Ricoeur 1970). Religious consciousness is treated as a form of false consciousness. Religious symbolism is a code. Ostensibly it speaks of gods and spirits. In reality its components refer to aspects of the human, social world. A psychological, sociological or anthropological theory of religion enables us to reinterpret and decode religious symbols by correlating them with mundane forces and facts hidden from the conscious mind of the religious actor.

1.3 Methodological Skepticism

The assumption that religious thought and action cannot be taken at face value but must be explained from the ground up is in part a product of the philosophical skepticism about the gods and the limits of human knowledge engendered by the Enlightenment. Some argue that such skepticism, or naturalism, is required by any sound methodology for the human sciences (Preus 1987). The only explanatory factors the human sciences can know of and thus recognize are mundane ones. They can only produce explanations of religion that deal in natural causes. Hence, they must adopt an attitude of suspicion toward religion’s own ‘memory’ of humankind’s contact with supramundane realities, and reinterpret religious symbols accordingly.

1.4 The Cultural–Symbolic Paradigm

The arguments for methodological skepticism are crucial in supporting radical, comprehensive theories of religion in the social and behavioral sciences. Without methodological skepticism, the production of such theories is not mandatory for those unconvinced of the Enlightenment’s case against religion. The case against methodological skepticism can be made from within a contrasting approach to the explanation of human, social phenomena: the cultural–symbolic (Byrne 1997). This has its ancestry in the stress on Verstehen as the appropriate and unique stance to take toward the human world advocated by German social theorists in the idealist tradition, such as Dilthey. On a cultural–symbolic approach, there is something that marks out the human world as different from the natural. Its objects—human beliefs, actions and institutions—are endowed with meaning independent of any sense social scientists impute to them by their theories. The meaning they have is a result of the fact that they are informed by concepts. A human act, for example, has the sense it has by virtue of it being done for a reason and being directed to an end. That sense is dependent on agent’s own beliefs and concepts. A standard way of explaining a human act is to bring out the reason end the agent had in performing it. Such an explanation will fail unless it uncovers the agent’s reason end. Human action is thus informed by concepts. We explain human acts by bringing out their background in the agent’s beliefs and intentions and by making those beliefs and intentions intelligible by reference to the rule-governed forms of social life in which they are embedded. Crudely put: to explain religious phenomena in this way is to account for them in terms of how the world appears to religious actors themselves and in terms of the forms of individual and social meaning these actors create in the institutions which they fashion (Winch 1958).

The cultural–symbolic approach preaches methodological agnosticism. Religious actors’ beliefs relate to suprahuman and supramundane realities. These beliefs need neither be endorsed nor denied by the social scientist in bringing out their sense or relying on their explanatory power. Both their sense and explanatory power relies on the beliefs making action and thought intelligible in terms of how the world appears to these agents. Whether the world is as it appears to these agents is irrelevant. By the same token, the question of whether the referring expressions used in reporting religious actors’ beliefs really do refer is irrelevant. It is enough that actors intend to refer to gods and like things by these expressions. Since methodological agnosticism in the explanation of religion is not committed to the truth of actors’ beliefs or to the real existence of things corresponding to the referring expressions in reports of those beliefs, it is a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the interpretation of religion (Clarke and Byrne 1993).

The cultural–symbolic approach can admit that there are forms of religious life which function ideologically or are the product of illusion. Investigation may show that individual religious phenomena exhibit forms of human meaning-making which fail of a minimal rationality and are corrupt. In such cases the hermeneutics of suspicion may be appropriately applied (MacIntyre 1971).

2. Defining Religion

2.1 The Purposes Of Definitions Of Religion

The social scientific study of religion needs a definition of religion in order to demarcate the subject matter of its inquiries. Theories of religion require definitions of religion at this initial stage for a parallel reason. Definitions may also serve the purposes of theories of religion by suggesting an initial interpretation of religion on which the theory may build. A complete theory of religion will also give rise to a definition of religion by way of summing up what it has concluded about the essential nature or origins of religion. Definitions of religion offered at the first stage are operational ones; definitions of religion offered at the end of theorizing can be styled ‘theoretical.’

2.2 Types Of Definition

Religion may be defined in terms of the typical content of its beliefs. Substantive definitions are illustrated by Tylor’s definition of religion as ‘belief in spiritual beings’ (Tylor 1903). Religion may also be defined by reference to the role religion plays in personal and social life or the structure of religious thought and action. Such structural–functionalist definitions are illustrated by Durkheim’s definition of religion in terms of a symbols system enforcing a distinction between sacred and profane reality and uniting members of society into a common moral community (Durkheim 1912/1967). Experiential definitions demarcate religion by reference to a putative common, or core, experience religious actors participate in, as illustrated by Muller’s claim that religion consists in the ability to experience the infinite in the finite (Muller 1893). These three modes of defining religion are united in seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for the classification of an institution as religious. Family resemblance (or polythetic) definitions reject this search. Their advocates maintain that the things we call ‘religions’ form a loose class. There is no attribute or set of attributes which unites them all: there is merely a network of overlapping similarities (Southwold 1978).

2.3 Issues Dividing Definitions Of Religion

Family resemblance definitions are divided from the rest about the degree of unity to be expected among the class of things the Western academy has chosen to call ‘religions.’ The remaining styles of definition illustrate the conflicting pull of issues of scope and clarity. A substantive definition of religion gives the concept of religion clear boundaries and increases its utility in the demarcation of social phenomena. However, the cost of that clarity is to restrict the scope of the class thus created, threatening thereby to rule out by definition the possibility of nontheistic religion. A structural–functionalist definition gives the concept of religion broad scope, defending the thought that religion can be seen as a universal human phenomenon, but at the cost, its critics will charge, of making the concept too vague.

A means of harmonizing the two dominant approaches (substantive and structural–functionalist may be found in a moral definition of religion. A religion is a symbolic system (with associated beliefs and practices) which articulates the thought that there is a source of moral order behind the world, that is the thought that the realms of value and fact are ultimately united. There are important social and personal needs met by religion so defined and its symbols have a typical content. They must purport to refer to transcendent realities which function as the ground of the natural order and the source or guarantors of morality. These realities are typically, though not inevitably, modeled on human agents (Byrne 1999).


  1. Byrne P 1997 The study of religion: Neutral? Scientific? Or neither? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 9: 340–51
  2. Byrne P 1999 The definition of religion: squaring the circle. In: Platovoet J, Molendijk S (eds.) The Pragmatics of Defining Religion. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands
  3. Clarke P B, Byrne P 1993 Religion Defined and Explained. St. Martin’s Press, New York
  4. Durkheim E 1912 Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse. Alcan. Paris (1967 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Swain J N (trans.). Allen and Unwin, London)
  5. Freud S 1927 Die Zukunft einer Illusion. Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, Leipzig (1978 The Future of an Illusion. Robson-Scott W D (trans.). Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London)
  6. Lewis I M 1989 Ecstatic Religion, 2nd edn. Routledge, London
  7. MacIntyre A 1971 Rationality and the explanation of action. In: MacIntyre A Against the Self-images of the Age. Duckworth, London
  8. Muller F M 1893 An Introduction to the Science of Religion. Longman, London
  9. Preus J S 1987 Explaining Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  10. Ricoeur P 1970 Freud and Philosophy. Savage D (trans.). Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  11. Southwold M 1978 Buddhism and the definition of religion. Man 13: 362–79
  12. Spiro M E 1966 Religion: problems of definition and explanation. In: Banton M (ed.) Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Tavistock Press, London
  13. Tylor E B 1903 Primitive Culture, 4th edn. Murray, London
  14. Winch P 1958 The Idea of a Social Science. Routledge, London


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