Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

12.2: Definitions of Religions

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Nomad praying

    There are various ways to define religion. One, the analytic definition stresses how religion manifests itself within a culture and identifies six dimensions of religion:

    1. Institutional: this refers to the organizational and leadership structure of religions; this may be complex with a bureaucracy or simple with only one leader
    2. Narrative: this refers to myths, e.g., creation stories
    3. Ritual: all religions have rites of passage and other activities
    4. Social: religions have social activities, perhaps beyond rituals, that helps to promote bonds between members
    5. Ethical: religions establish a moral code and approved behaviors for its members and even society at large
    6. Experiential: religious behavior is often focused on connection with a sacred reality beyond everyday experience

    The functional definition highlights the role religion plays within a culture. This approach defines religion in terms of how it fulfills cognitive, emotional and social needs for its adherents.

    The third definition looks at the essential nature of religion, hence its name, the essentialist definition. This approach defines religion as a system of beliefs and behaviors that characterizes the relationship between people and the supernatural. It is an adaptive behavior that promotes a sense of togetherness, unity and belonging. It helps to define one of the groups to which we belong. Warms (2008) takes an essentialist approach when he defines religion as a system that is composed of stories, includes rituals, has specialists, believes in the supernatural, and uses symbols and symbolism as well as altered states of consciousness. Additionally, Warms states that a key factor in religion is that it changes over time.


    1. Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
    2. Lavenda Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. 2010. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
    3. Laufer, Berthold. 1917. Origin of the word shaman. American Anthropologist 19 (3): 361-371. Also, DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.3.02a00020 (October 28, 2009).
    4. Warms, Richard. 2008. Sacred Realms: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

    This page titled 12.2: Definitions of Religions is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lumen Learning via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.