REFLECTIONS ON DEFINING RELIGION
Participants in whatever is obviously a religion already have their own terms and definitions, and this
would be one place to begin research. This is the emic perspective, that of the local society or community,
and it often coincides with the ethnographic or fieldwork approach. However, a universal definition, or at
least one that is generally valid cross-culturally, is desirable for comparative purposes, the etic
perspective (Western scientific) and ethnological approach. Yet, curiously, such a definition has long
been remarkably elusive, anything proposed being subjected to critical scrutiny and found defective or
deficient in one or more ways (see Blasi 1998, Flood 1999, Klass 1995, Saler 1977, 1993). Indeed, many
standard textbooks on religion do not even wrestle with the problem of definition (e.g., Matthews 1999),
and some resort to just listing a set of more or less shared characteristics instead (e.g., Molloy 1999,
Definitions from Anthropologists
Here is a sample of some of the more important anthropological attempts at defining religion.
Edward B. Tylor in defining religion as "the belief in spiritual beings" provides a minimal cross-cultural
definition, but it begs the question of what is spiritual (cf. King 1996 and Turner 1992).
Emile Durkheim's (1912/1965:62) classic definition is that "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and
practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set aside and forbidden--- beliefs and practices
which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."
Paul Radin (1957:3) describes religion as follows: "We may safely insist, however, that it consists of two
parts: the first an easily definable, if not precisely specific feeling; and the second certain acts, customs,
beliefs, and conceptions associated with this feeling. The belief most inextricably connected with the
specific feeling is a belief in spirits outside of man, conceived of as more powerful than man and as
contrlling all those elements in life upon which he lays most stress."
Melford E. Spiro (1971:96) defines religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction
with culturally postulated superhuman beings."
Edward Norbeck (1961:11) states that: "The least constricting terms our vocabulary provides to enable us
to set off the realm of religion from the rest of culture are the natural and the supernatural. Most if not all
peoples make some sort of distinction between the objects, beliefs, and events of the everyday, workaday,
ordinary world and those which transcend the ordinary world. Using this distinction, as others have done,