Below is a quote of the late sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013) who wrote “Religion in Human Evolution” (source). In the quote, Bellah offers his own personal definition of “religion” and reference 3 other religion theorists — showing us how layered his definition is.
Note that Bellah’s definition of religion does not necessitate any supernatural elements – something at which both theists and atheists alike may balk. If you look at my fumbled attempt at making a definition of religion it also does not necessitate supernatural elements.
I hope Bellah’s definitions helps illustrate that before we generalizing about religion, we should first agree on definitions. Bellah’s definition illustrates how abstract and distant from common usage a scholar’s definition tends to be.
Why do Scholars do this? Well, “religion” is a term historically bound with Judeo-Christian concepts, and scholars who have examined many cultures realized that the definition was too limited and tried to loosen its bonds by broadening the concept to capture practices that clearly did not fit into those confines. But the result is often so broad as to make the concept of “religion” too fuzzy to allow any generalizations. Meanwhile, common place definitions are too bound to the local concepts of “religion” and usually given by those without broad anthropological experience.
So what is the perfect balance? For me, There is no perfect balance. There is only temporary, pragmatic agreement. Bellah’s definition illustrates the artificial nature of the word “religion” and thus the need for people to come to an agreed usage of the word before arguing about its characteristics. See my similar posts here.
Bellah’s Definition of “Religion”
I start with Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion in his “Religion as a Cultural System,” which I should give in my abbreviated version to clarify what I mean and don’t mean by religion: “Religion is a system of symbols which, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” I should point out that neither Cliff nor I use the terms gods or God. What Geertz meant by a cultural system is very dependent on his reading of Alfred Schutz, particularly his paper on multiple realities or multiple worlds, terms which Schutz took from William James. Besides what Schutz called the paramount reality, the world of daily life, what Weber called “the everyday,” Schutz distinguished the world of science, the world of religion, and the world of art.