Defining religion: What is it all about and what do we mean by the term religion?

Well one thing to ask before we start exploring this is does it really matter. Surely we know what religion is, it is just there…?

Whether we like it or not it is everywhere, and as I have been trying to stress in setting up Religion Bites it is worth accepting that religion is part of the world in which we live, we can’t ignore it, we need to live with it around us, and so we are really challenge to try to understand it a bit better.

And that is why it is worth taking just a few minutes to reflect on the idea of what is religion?

What is it? The thing we call religion?

What are the meanings we give to the word religion, how do we use it when we talk about religion? Say in the classroom, in books, or in our daily lives?

If we start off asking this question, it gives us the chance to try to understand what we are talking about, and also what we are not talking about


Episode notes


In this episode I discuss ways in which what we think of as religion is often defined with reference to one or more of the following ideas:

  • Gods
  • Spirituality
  • Sacred/Superhuman
  • Faith
  • Social
  • Cognitive/Psychological
  • Beliefs/Practices

Each of these might give us something to think about in relation to pinning down what we mean by the term ‘religion’.

None is straightforward and simple enough on its own, so perhaps we might want to bring together a definition that includes all of the above, something along the lines of Geertz’s long winded and extensive definition, that:

‘…a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting motivations in men [and women] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely.’

Or a family resemblances approach to defining religion, saying that a particular instance of religion might not include everything, but is made up of a set of characteristics shared across different religions. A families characteristics may vary across its members, some having a particular shape of nose or mouth, or ears, or colour of hair or eyes, but they all together make up a set of resemblances that compose the family as a whole.

Likewise we may say that some religions may emphasise spirituality, or sacredness, or the social element, etc, but all are made up of similar characteristics. Religion is not reducible to one or two elements, but varies across different ‘family members’.

This ties in perhaps with the approach of the scholar Jonathan Z Smith who cited a list (by another scholar) of fifty different attempts to define the concept of ‘religion’.

What this told us, said Smith, is not that religion cannot be defined, but rather that ‘it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways’ (1998: 281).

Does not mean any of them are false, but rather there as so many different ways we can talk about what we call religion

What is often mentioned here is the old India proverb of the blind men trying to determine what an elephant is. Without being able to see the whole, they each describe the part they touch – the tail is a rope, the leg is a tree, and so on.

Whatever definition we may find most useful, there are many other ways of saying what religion ‘is’.

It is not necessarily important how we define religion, or what we include in our definition. What is more important is how we construct our definition, how we ask the questions about what we mean by religion.

As I will talk more about later in the Religion Bites series, the most important thing to ask is not so much what is religion, but why and how we choose specific issues, and even why we talk about this thing called religion.

As the writer Talal Asad has put it:

“… there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.”

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About the Religion Bites Podcast


The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.