The Differences Between Functional and Sociological Definitions of Religion


The concept of religion has changed over the centuries, evolving from scrupulous devotion to a complex set of social practices. Today, the concept is even more convoluted, with an expanded cosmic version that encompasses a wider range of beliefs and practices than a polytheistic religion. There are also functional definitions of religion, which shift its sense into a different register entirely. To understand the various kinds of answers to this question, we should consider the following differences.

Religion is a social genus

Sociologists study religions. In general, religions have four dimensions: belief, ritual, spiritual experience, and unique social forms. The ideational components allow for comprehensive inclusion and valuation of a phenomenon. While people practice religion in different ways and to varying degrees, the definition of religion includes both traditional and modern forms of faith. A sociological definition of religion can also help explain differences between religions and explain their shared characteristics.

It is a complex of memes

Memes are replicating ideas that propagate from one generation to the next. In a complex of memes, the most efficient memes are the ones that transcribe well, reproduce aggressively, and reinforce themselves. Such memes are found in religions, artistic tropes, and language. They often resemble a human being, but they are not. Religions often depend on members to do the work and propagate the memes.

It is a form of proto-science

Both science and religion are based on the search for explanations of nature. However, they differ from each other in many ways. For instance, religion tends to view the world as a collection of stories and myths, and science focuses on gathering evidence and drawing conclusions from it. Though the two are opposites, their similarities are many. Both endeavor to increase human life and extend its duration. For example, both seek answers to the question “what is the meaning of life?”

It has institutional structures

Religions have both social and experiential aspects. Social institutions are most obvious when there are a large number of members, as they are more conspicuous than a single individual. In addition, social institutions create a stable network by preserving the patterns of doctrine, mythology and practices. All religions have both social and experiential dimensions, though the latter tends to dominate the former. Here are some examples of each. Let’s look at both of them in turn.

It is a form of moral/ethical reasoning

Many Americans identify themselves by their religious beliefs. While religions differ in terms of the role it plays in our lives, both have moral precepts. For instance, revealed religions provide guidelines for good conduct, but are difficult to interpret. Moreover, they vary in terms of their gods and moral prescriptions. Thus, it is reasonable to bracket religious considerations when discussing moral/ethical decisions.