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A "Definition" of Religion

A "Definition" of Religion

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson identifies some common elements that appear across religions that allow the student to see more clearly what religion is, while underlining the severe difficulties inherent in attempting to provide a firm, universal definition.

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It can be tough to define religion, not only the thing of religion itself but even from within the many different religions it can be a challenge. So where do we begin?

Well, we might begin with the many associations that we might have with religion.


Like music, many different kinds of music, silence, prayer, clothing that's worn during services and ceremonies, rules that guide behavior, and then there's the preoccupation and concern with ultimate question, the nature existence, the nature of God, whether God exists beauty, truth, death.

And then maybe at the crux of it is this desire to reconcile the apparently separate worlds of the human and the non-human, the worlds of matter and spirit. There are many terms that seem to compete when we begin thinking about them, and this is due to the nature of language itself and the way we engage with it and interact with it, for better or worse.

The philosopher of Ludwig Wittgenstein went on at great length about this in a book called The Philosophical Investigations, which was published after he died. He explored the nature of language and how we interact with it. He had a very active and functional view of language, that any given word-- and these quotes from him-- any given word uses a complicated network of similarities, overlapping, and crisscrossing. He therefore applies the term family resemblances, or family resemblance, to help mediate the tension that seems so present in language and in our human fixation with definitions and their accuracy.

So even though religion is hard to define, it doesn't mean that it can't be understood. Maybe the most practical approach is to look for family resemblances. Earlier we noted several common traits among the religions, and if we follow Wittgenstein, a more fluid definition of religion might be useful. If there are two seemingly unrelated concepts and thus two complete, competing or conflicting approaches to an issue, these original terms might find some commonality or might come together through some other intermediate term or terms.

So in the sense language game he called it, in the sense language game of interpretation it might be useful to see how religion functions across the borders of a fixed definition. So with that, I'll leave you with religion, and I'll see you next time. Thanks.

Notes on “A ‘Definition’ of Religion”



Music by J.S. Bach; "Sarabande".

Source: Music by J.S. Bach; "Sarabande".

Terms to Know
Family Resemblance

A theory discussed in Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" whereby seemingly unrelated concepts may be connected to each other via intermediate concepts.