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Study Notes

What is Religion?

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 9 Jul 2018

There are three main approaches to defining religion, in sociology:

There are three main approaches to defining religion, in sociology:

  • Substantive
  • Functional
  • Social constructionist

Max Weber (1905) used a substantive definition of religion, seeing it as a belief in a supernatural power that is unable to be scientifically explained. In other words, whether a belief can be considered religious or not depends on the substance of what is believed. Religion requires a belief in God or gods, or other supernatural beliefs.

This contrasts with a functional definition, such as that used by Durkheim or Parsons, which defines religion by the social or psychological functions it performs for individuals or society. In this definition, a belief or organisation could provide certain functions – such as encouraging social cohesion and a collective conscience – without necessarily including supernatural beliefs. Could football be considered a religion, for instance?

A social constructionist definition of religion comes from interpretivist sociologists who argue that there are so many different types of religion that it is impossible to come up with a single, undisputed definition. Instead, what is interesting is the process by which a set of beliefs becomes recognised as a religion and who has power to determine whether something is a religion or not.

For example, when the UK government passed a law outlawing “incitement to religious hatred” in 2006, some opponents questioned what constituted a religion. Similarly, there have been debates about whether Scientology is a religion, with some countries declaring it a dangerous cult, others a business, others a religion. There have been attempts in some countries to ban Scientology (e.g. Germany in 2007). Those who seek to apply a substantive or functional definition conclude that the organisation fits the criteria to be considered a religion, and therefore it is the subjective ways in which religion is defined which makes the difference in this case. Instead of making assumptions about what all religions hold in common, sociologists should ask what religions mean to their believers and recognise that it is likely to differ from society to society, religion to religion and time to time.

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