Defining Religion: a syndrome model


“Religion”: a syndrome definition

A) Religion must offer ALL FIVE of these:

  • Highly valued source(s) Of Knowledge & Authority
    • Living People: Shamans, Priests, Mystics, Ministers, Rabbis …
    • Recorded Texts: ancient and/or modern
    • Tradition: oral, behavioral, institutional
  • In- Group Social bonds
    • Encourages in-group cooperation
    • Offers friends, potential mates, business partners, helpful neighbors
  • Behavioral Norms: ways to teach or reinforce morals, social roles/rituals, gender roles…
    • Threatens penalties for those not obeying rules
    • Sets how to associate with nonbelievers or apostates
  • Promises of a Better Afterlife
    • a better hereafter: either in Heaven (or at least not hell), a better reincarnation, Nirvana, a good life in the Spirit-world etc.
  • Suggest or promise benefits in this life
    • Improved health or total healing
    • Status, security, money,  jobs, prosperous family, abilities
    • Improved personality: ability to overcome hardship, to help others, happiness
    • Improved relationships
    • Special experiences: happiness, bliss, unity, peace, love, forgiveness…
    • Psychological comfort

B) Religion must also have at least two of the below:

  • Spirits: Discuss a supernatural cosmology of spirits, angels, demons, gods etc.
  • Taboos: Defines taboo and pollution issues
  • Explanations of the Unknown:  Offers explanations for what is felt to be otherwise unknowable information: creation myths, origin histories
  • Apocalyptic Visions:  Doomsday scenarios and/or drastic changes coming in the future
  • Narratives:  Offer story telling as a means of offering meaning and bonds. Myths.
  • Rituals:  Offer rituals to satisfy the side of humans seeking safety in order and repetition.  Ritual are used to reinforce the other aspects of the religion.


How to Define “Religion”

Attempts to give a simple, universal definition of  religion are doomed because the word is used in a great many ways. So here I am offering a more complex definition of religion.  And this just a definition that is meant to capture the use of religion when we talk about most of the religions you have heard of and even the ones anthropologists talk about. My approach is to define religion in much the same way as medicine defines syndromes.

In medicine, the notion of a “syndrome” is used to capture human disorders which we don’t yet fully understand. Psychiatry, an area of medicine wrought with incomplete knowledge, has most of its diagnoses in terms of syndromes. Let me show your an example of Psychiatry’s syndrome definition of “Panic Attack” as list in the DSM-IV:

Panic Attack:

Must have all of these:

  • Intense fear or discomfort
  • Developing Abruptly
  • Peaking within 10 minutes

Must have at least 4 of these:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feeling of choking
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Palpitations or tachycardia
  • Paresthesias
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

So you see, for some internal state to qualify as a panic attack it has a few conditions it must meet and then it may or may not have a certain number of other traits.  Thus, two people’s panic attacks could be qualitatively incredibly different experiences and still called “panic attacks”.

Likewise, I think we should be able to build a syndrome for religion which allows for a wide variety of religious experiences but still is not so nebulous as to be meaningless.  The definition I put together above is just my fumbling at what a syndrome definition of  “religion” would look like.  What should I add, or subtract — please help me build this.   Also, perhaps others have done this already — please let me know.


  • Picture: HT: “DirtBrothers“: An Archeology web site
  • One of my favorite books on “What is Religion?” is:  “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” by Pascal Boyer.
  • See other “Word!” posts, here.
  • I last updated this definition in February 2019.


Filed under Cognitive Science

18 responses to “Defining Religion: a syndrome model

  1. Temaskian

    should include “some set of beliefs about the supernatural” under the heading “must have all of these”.

  2. @ Temaskian
    Good point, I forgot the word “Supernatural”.
    But here is the point of my “Syndrome” definition methodology — Some forms of Buddhism have no spirits or invisible forces — no real supernatural. Maybe the cosmic karma machine but some even hold refined forms of that. So I am not sure ALL religions have that even though that is certainly the common notion for most atheists. You see, I am not attached to the notion of religion — it is the components that tell us something.
    But I will think of ways of including it.
    I hope suggestions keep coming.

  3. First, I must say that I like your list of “symptoms of religion.” You see, it explains why I miss it so much. It offered me a social network, hope, and even story-telling time. I used to love the Bible stories–I still do, and wish they were real.

    It is because it is so heart warming that we stay, I think. If offers traditions, too, like Christmas rituals. I so miss going to Christmas productions, not to mention being part of it: wearing the customs, singing, acting, etc.

    Frankly, sometimes I think we need religion and nothing can replace it. It is a fairy tale with touches of horror that helps us carry on with the harshness of life.

    Is it a syndrome? I don’t know. Maybe. Is the us-vrs.-them mentality that keeps us there? I’ve started to believe that yes, it does. The idea that the world is against the group helps the members unite, thus allowing the group to fulfill many fellowship needs that we humans have.

    I don’t know why I’m so melancholic today. It must be the Christmas season.

  4. Thanx Lorena. Indeed, my intent is to show that religion is broad and that is why generalized condemnation of religions (which many atheists do) is both naive and wrong.

    I strongly feel a focused approach will help with transitions where the baby is not thrown out with the was.

    By the way, I am constantly up-dating and improving the definition. It is a work in the making to illustrate some principles. Thanx for your thoughts.

  5. this is a really good definition and comprehensive list. i would add a modifier to include my own strange progressive brand. under “Apocalyptic Visions: Doomsday scenarios, drastic changes coming in the future” i would add an “or” between doomsday scenario OR drastic changes. i don’t think one leads to another. when i think of Doomsday, i realize i really don’t have one. i do have and hope for a day where the lion lays down with the lamb and we don’t learn war anymore, but that would be a totally kick ass day that’s good for everyone, no doom really involved. just a drastic change.

  6. Good point! I will add later.

    Sent from my DROID!

  7. Earnest

    Sabio, I’m sorry I may be a bit thick today but I have to disagree with one of the mandatory 3 categories at the top. For example if we discuss animism, wicca, or devil worship (not that I really know all that much about these), I fail to see how any of these 3 examples have major currents of thought which promote self-improvement. However, I do see ways for all 3 to perhaps promote community and some sort of distateful but somehow functional “moral” structure.

    Another proposal would be to rename this page “How to Define SUCCESSFUL Religion”, with the implication being that you need a self-help feature to grow large and dominant on this planet. However, that may simply be sampling bias, as there may be conditions where animism for example might theoretically give rise to a highly organized powerful society.

    Would kung fu animal styles be an example of self-improvement animism where you try to be like an animal to fight better? This is also seen in Indian kalaripayyatu.

    How many believers are needed for a religion to qualify as an actual religion? Presumably more than one believer. If all others flee from the single believer, perhaps the single believer is just crazy.

    For what duration must the believers believe for it to be religion rather than a psychotic mass hysteria event? If this religion lasts less than a single day and then evaporates, perhaps it was just a “happening”, like the Summer of Love for example.

  8. @ Earnest
    I think the three “religions” you mention still qualify in the definition. But as we push the edges you will find things that some feel should be called religions and other feel shouldn’t. The point of this post is not to nail down a definition but to show how fuzzy even an inclusive definition would be. Words are not defined, they are negotiated.

  9. This whole notion is excellent. I’m hung up on the “community” bit. Even if they are part of a community, looking deeply enough will reveal differences between any two co-religionists. In my mind, everyone has their own personal version of what this is, which they arrive at via a unique path of life experiences. This is true for any abstract word really, contra the telementation model of language.

    Must any particular symptom be always present? Isn’t it possible to have a sort of ring species, where two totally disjoint sets of symptoms would still fall under the definition?

  10. @ Uzza
    Indeed, I think you are right. The differences never keep coming up. Thus the whole “definition” thing shows itself somewhat of a failure.

    Language is only a tool. Words are just unwritten agreements. Contracts are broken all the time. Renegotiation is always an option.

    It is ironically funny that on deep conversation, we must always eventually discuss what we think about language.

  11. Hey, spending a lot of time on your blog today. How did I miss so much great stuff before?!

    Anyway, in my view “narrative” and “ritual” would fall under the “must have” category.

  12. Hey, thanks Leah! Perhaps they do fall into the same category when rituals re-tell a story as they often do.

  13. Pingback: Religion as a syndrome | Random Ntrygg

  14. I think that morals as a condition of religion is too simplified.

    I’d suggest: Behavioral Norms – including gender roles, morals, rituals (clothing, foods, modes of worship)

  15. @ Random Nitrygg :
    Good point. The “Morals” condition was too narrow. I took your suggestion and broadened it to:

    Behavioral Norms: ways to teach or reinforce morals, social roles/rituals, gender roles…

    Thank you kindly

  16. @ Sabio Lantz

    I don’t agree with you.

    You have mentioned a medical syndrome; by which you mean, if I have correctly understood, the symptoms and signs to diagnose a sudden illness. Now the symptoms don’t define the medicine.

    Likewise the ethical, moral and spiritual symptoms of a person are cured by a religion; the symptoms don’t define the religion.

    Religion is the path that leads to God or the beliefs that help one to know God; this is the history of the word from time immemorial.

    Isn’t it?


  17. Pingback: Religion identifies the beliefs that help to know God | paarsurrey

  18. @paarsurrey: As often, you have totally misunderstood this post. There are religions without Gods. So your definition does not work but that may be due to your lack of anthropological knowledge.

Please share your opinions!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s