What Is Religion?

welcome to religion 101 where we will broadly explore religion what it is and how do we go about studying it from an academic perspective and the first order of business is defining what is religion the biggest problem with trying to define religion is everybody already thinks they know what it means but trust me it's a lot more complicated than that so what is religion sometimes we use the word to define a system of doctrines or maybe a set of cultural practice shared by a society and sometimes we use it to refer to a body of myths or all these things at the same time but what constitutes a religion what makes Buddhism a religion but Aristotle's philosophy not why do some people say secular humanism is a religion and other people are like no definitely not by the end of this video I hope to have convinced you that religion is a subjective term with a very blurry definition and a contested definition depending on who is using the term our first piece of evidence is that the term religion has shifted meaning over the course of its history our English word religion really has little to do with the Latin term religio where we get the modern word like I talked about in another video the Latin word religio refers to the socially acceptable cultic duties that people did for the gods like sacrificing at a state-funded temple religio was an opposition to unsanctioned suspicious rituals and beliefs which the Romans called superstition so for example Christianity was labeled under super sit to you at first because the Romans saw it as the wrong way to relate to the gods but this Roman definition of religion doesn't match our modern definition of religion which would encompass both what the Romans thought as superstition religio under the same concept our category of religion is a modern term strongly shaped by the past 100 years of Western scholarship it really didn't exist as a category in other cultures in especially not in ancient Rome so who are these Western scholars and what were their definitions for religion the most minimalist definition comes from the anthropologist EB Tyler who defined religion as belief in supernatural beings back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries anthropologists were obsessed with trying to find the primitive religion the religion out of which all religions evolved Tyler argued that it was this belief in spirits that was the nation of all religion a vague belief in spirits called animism that eventually evolved into polytheism and finally monotheism most anthropologists today reject this definition as being too simplistic the religion evolution theory just doesn't hold up to scrutiny and not only that there's a lot more to religion than just believing in supernatural beings what is more popular today is defining religion as a fundamentally social phenomenon something that reflects the needs and concerns of society above everything else Emile Durkheim is probably the most famous champion of this position he succinctly defines religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that is to say things set apart in forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them notice his focus on society the single unified community that he refers to in his definition for Durkheim religion is a form of custom that socializes individuals into a larger community and which provides an obligation to that individual to live by the society's rules for Durkheim religious beliefs and practices lend an aura of ultimate significance to society and the ideology that the society holds as important like I said this perspective of religion is very popular among scholars today and I myself actually lend a lot of my own thinking to Durkheim since religion is so complex some scholars have given up trying to come up with one unified definition for religion instead they try to argue for a family resemblances definition Vidkun stein most famously applied the strategy to games it might not be possible to find a single characteristic that we can apply to all games but it is possible to identify similarities for example there is very little similarity between tic-tac-toe and soccer but they have family resemblances enough to fall under our category of a game they both have rules they both have opponents they both are used for leisure the philosopher robert outtie includes on his list characteristics like belief in supernatural beings a distinction between sacred and profane ritual acts focused on these objects a moral community believed to be sanctioned by divine beings and etc according to the strategy not all of these characteristics need to be present to label something as religion but if it has five or six of them it probably is a now I know what you're thinking we're a few minutes into this video and all we've gotten is a bunch of different definitions what is the one theme the one unifying concept that will bring all these definitions together ironically the one unifying theme is all of these definitions are coming from Western scholars from the past 100 years of history and here's why that's important religion as a category may have been invented by modern Western scholars we really want a one or two sentence definition of religion something that we can apply to religion no matter the cultural context or the belief system but as complex as religion is that might not be possible you can probably always find an exception to your definition it might be more helpful to think of religion as an analytical category of our own design Jonathan Z Smith one of the greatest scholars of religion and who I call the Gandalf of religious studies explains it like this religion is not a native term it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define it is a second order generate concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as language plays in linguistics or culture plays in anthropology what Jay Z Smith is arguing is that there is no archetypal definition of religion that we can perfectly apply to any culture religion is a subjective analytical term whose meaning depends on the person using it and on the questions they use the term to illuminate this means that religion is a fundamentally contested concept and we don't only see this in the world of scholars as they try to define it but we see this play out in popular culture we have people arguing as Scientology a religion is Jediism a religion there is even a famous book that argues coca-cola is a religion now for those of you that wanted a nice tidy definition of religion I know this might be frustrating if you want something that's more concrete and more objective than I would recommend trying that family resemblances definition but for the time being just be aware that religion is a very subjective concept in a concept that is very difficult to define when someone uses the word religion you can now ask yourself are they using this term to define belief in God are they using it to refer to ritual practice what perspective are they bringing to the term you will recognize that different people will use the word to refer to different things and this will help you navigate discussions about religion which too often lack the complexity and nuance that they deserve as always thanks for watching and subscribing and I'll see you next time


  1. I would simply expand the definition of: "Belief in the supernatural." to "Belief which is not scientific."
    It might seem like no change at all, but now takes into consideration cult practices which extend beyond belief in spirits: I.E cults of personality, lifestyle cultures like Veganism or even dogmatic atheist groups.

  2. A complex system of representation R that provides a mechanism for the sequestration of (actual) resources that accumulate when people aggregate in sufficient numbers.

    An inner cognoscenti/epistemically privileged group G1 oversee the control/dispensation of R. R has novelty- it functions as a perlocutionary trough.

    An outer epistemically unprivileged group G2 forms on the lure of (the novelty of) R. G2 pays a fee to G1: tithes/subscriptions/donations/ticket purchases for seminars/literature sales, monetisation, etc., for the routine dispensation of R (by G1).

    G2 is itself is a wellspring of ancillary resources: community, relationships, skill sharing, assets/property sharing, sundry opportunities, etc.

    I've don't understood why academics think that Religion is something sui generis, requiring an equally sui generis explanation. It simply lies on a continuum of behaviours involving the use of representation to garner access to resources that are actually there, often via a pretence to resources that don't exist- such as religion. This behaviour is ubiquitous. Even this very YouTube channel is an example of this (as is most of YouTube).

  3. I would classify religion as:

    1. a belief or theory about life after death
    2. Ideas of the spirit or soul
    3. Belief in the message of a supernatural being or founder of that belief
    4. The immateriality of the world
    5. Concepts of right and wrong. Or positive actions and negative actions

    4/5 is acceptable.

  4. It's funny, because the religions that lived through Roman times (Judaism and Christianity) still hew closely to the original meaning of religio as the meaning of religion. Where outsider academics saw different groups being labeled religio and superstitio and concluded that the modern term religion should encompass both, the Jews and Christians simply think that the different groups all think they are religio and are simply being labeled and mislabeled throughout time.

  5. Basicaly A Religion is a Fandom right. You got people in a community doing there thing and all that.
    And the toxic bunch doing toxic things. Not really different.

  6. The one unifying trait of religion is a Belief of a super Natural Being Teaching people how to live the good life.

  7. If u wanna read religion – Read oldest religion " Hindism " , U wanna know the definition of religion – Geeta the holy book explain – people who do the right full act with the right intentsion call religious and a group of people who do the act in the fevor of mankind and don't harm any living human being by following the same different but same practice become a religion .

  8. Sir I want to ask which community first used this word actually . I believe Christians are the first

  9. Here's my definition:
    "The shared beliefs about the supernatural between an aggregate of people that are believed for social cohesion."

  10. Trust me, I know exactly what orthodox religion is, It is no different in nature than your political system , your military system ,your banking system etc , it was initiated as a system of mind control for the slave population in Rome at the time and nothing has changed ,we have become entrenched in the delusional belief that god in the bible is the one true god. The very first original  " Gnostic Esoteric spiritual sect", or the early Christians ,thought that the tribal virtual reality god that you pray to in the bible is "insane", and that it was the most dangerous belief system that we could adopt . they believed that we are all divine enlightened beings of love and light how have just forgotten our true origin in the Pleroma…..How can we be anything but perfect as we are all gods children the true god that is ,and we only need to realize our divinity …..

  11. Just wondering if you have read, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, by Gordin Clark. The first chapter is dedicated to answering this question

  12. 3:00 So basically you don't have to be religious to believe in God, but there are large Athiest religions.

  13. Great video. I came here because of Genetically Modified channel. Would love to know how religion compares to cults then. I recently (6 months ago) left a cult that I not only was in for 16 years, but also taught in. Just curious how the two terms differ in your understanding

  14. ". The realm of Barbelo "?….a question to Jesus…(Yeshua) from Judas Escariot. This makes Yaweh revealed at Sinai a secondary intervention..??? Please explain. Sorry to be so perplexing. Thank you.

  15. You should go to the peruvian amazon to the center Takiwasi, so you can learn about "Religion" from the inside, love your videos but studying religion from the outside can't give you a full picture.

  16. That was sufficiently confusing to keep me interested in studying religion.
    I'm atheist, but religion is fascinating to me.

  17. All religion is plain and simple… A Belief in a Deity and it's teachings.. No complication about that!!

  18. My MTS degree is from Perkins school od Theology SMU my Ph.D is history of ideas, my view is based upon Dr. McFarlad of SMU, Religions do three things:
    a) to identify the human problematic,
    b) to identify an ultimate transformative experience (UTE) which resolves the problematic, and
    c) to mediate between the two.

  19. a simple definition exists, you just didn't read the dictionary. ( merriam-webster – a (1)cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with (2)ardor and (3)faith. ) I can not think of a better, more simpler definition that fits the main characteristic. That being every " religion has a ( 1)central idea, people (2)exercise that deeply held idea in some kind of way, and by practicing it, (3)it will make them a better person)

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