Religion is, by definition, a complex of beliefs and practices that claim to embody a transcendent reality or, at least, a set of values that guide and inspire people. It is an important aspect of human culture and has influenced history and politics as both a source of liberation and coercion, of morals and ethics, of social organization and structure, and of artistic and scientific innovation. It may even be responsible for some of the most basic human emotions and behaviors, including comfort, guidance, and a sense of community.
But stipulative definitions of religion are problematic, and scholars should take care not to be trapped by them. As Mary De Muckadell argues, they force us to adopt an ideologically loaded stance toward the object of study. They also make it impossible to critique the concept of religion, and thus prevent us from understanding how it is used, for better or worse, by all kinds of people.
One way to avoid the problems of stipulative definitions is to define religion functionally, in terms of its role in people’s lives. This approach is not new, but it has taken on more significance in the last few decades. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever group of practices unite a people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Paul Tillich offered a similar, more general definition: Religion is whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values and guides his or her behavior.
The idea is that, in a world with many different religious options, people will balance costs and rewards to select the religion that provides the most satisfaction. This is a highly abstract way of looking at things, but it can be helpful in thinking about how religions operate and their impact on the world around them.
This kind of analysis is also useful in assessing claims about the effects of religion on things like health and longevity. It can help us to understand why, for instance, some researchers find that religious people tend to have lower rates of heart disease and higher rates of longevity.
However, there are also serious reasons to question the validity of any such conclusions based on this type of data. The problem is that it depends on the interpretation of what a “religion” is, and how it is measured. As a result, the conclusions are often based on sloppy or biased research and can lead to conclusions that are not necessarily true in real life. For example, it is possible that the effect on health has more to do with being part of a social network than with the beliefs and practices associated with a particular religion. As a result, it is important to look at all the data and make sure that we are not just relying on flawed or ideologically biased interpretations. This is why it is crucial to use the most sophisticated and rigorous methods available in the study of religion.